It has been 11 years since Sir Alan Ayckbourn has seen a new work transfer to the West End, and 21 years since they’ve made it to Broadway. Trevor Nunn has just made box office gold out of his Rob Brydon led revival of A Chorus of Disapproval, while Ayckbourn’s latest concludes its UK tour with a weary bow to a half-empty Richmond Theatre.
Tragically, for those who consider the best of Ayckbourn’s work to stand proudly among the finest comedy dramas of the 20th century, the reasons for this are painfully clear. For all of its conceptual audacity, Surprises is an awkward and agonisingly drawn-out bore, directed in perfunctory fashion by its author, who fails to scrunch the potent ideas he alludes to into anything resembling a cohesive whole. Ayckbourn takes us back to the future (again) in a three-act rumination on the future of love in the face of technological advancement.
It’s the near future. Robots are everywhere, children have profanity moderators built into their skulls, and there are lunar prisons and colonies on Mars. Grace (Ayesha Antoine) is a 16-year old rich girl determined to marry her boyfriend Tim (Ben Porter), a labourer (lower than an android, in her father’s opinion) with a crazy business proposition. Grace’s dad buys him off, and Tim’s business partner swiftly uses the money to invent time travel.
This leads to all sorts of time-hopping shenanigans, and seems to offer a rich if barmy set-up for a love story played out across multiple time-lines and against a future of rapidly escalating bio-technology. Unfortunately, the second and third acts spin off on a series of barely related tangents, as a high-powered lawyer finds marital bliss with a modified android and her secretary loses herself in holodeck cybersex. The narratives don’t so much interweave as trip headlong over one another, and while the action shuffles into a wispy resolution by the closing act, the curtain falls to a sense of relief rather than satisfaction.
The dialogue is thumpingly heavy-handed and maddeningly unfunny. Characterisations are micron-thin – with only Richard Stacey as love-struck robot Jan making any real impression – and rarely stray more than a step from the purlieus of Ayckbourn’s comfort zone. Marriage is still the over-riding concern, with the subtext of Surprises hinging on a wary evaluation of pre-nuptial agreements. Life and love should be territories of surprise and wonder, and knowledge of the future or the presumption of future events can only erode their power. Ayckbourn also takes a swipe at technologically enhanced longevity: a key message seems to be that love has a sell-by-date, and that by postponing our own obsolescence we are stretching our capacity for companionship to breaking point. They’re undeniably potent questions, but Ayckbourn has drowned them in flat, circular dialogue and a view of the future that’s mired in the past. Ostensibly indebted to the dystopian satire of H G Wells, his work neglects the economy and density of the best science fiction. His future shocks barely tingle; Black Mirror this ain’t.
The worst of this is that by the conclusion even Surprises strongest suit, the dialogues between robot Jan and his human masters, begins to look suspect. The same trick is used over and over again, playing the naïve android against the distressed human, having characters explain their emotional state in the baldest terms to a perplexed automaton. It begins to look like an evasion of actual drama, like an excuse to avoid the very complications which Ayckbourn is ostensibly addressing. Rather than a tool to unpick the concealed truths about ourselves, the technology begins to look like a prop.
Which is ironic, because the props look nothing like technology. Oddly, for a writer who has immersed his recent work so heavily in science fiction, Ayckbourn’s work displays no sense of a compelling or consistent sci-fi aesthetic. His future worlds look and feel as if they’ve been foisted reluctantly on an under-resourced village hall, not followed from page to stage by a rampantly experienced writer/director. There are some neat touches to Michael Holt’s set, but from the Hi-de-Hi! time shuttle to the Red Dwarf-esque ‘Avatar collars’, the onstage kitsch frequently works against the subtler points of Ayckbourn’s text.
The less outré gadgetry feels actively retrogressive – making a big deal out of video calls is so far from the cutting edge it’s practically the handle. Ayckbourn has demonstrated his persistent genius as recently as A Wonderful Day in 2009. He’s far from spent, and even at its weakest (as in here and 2000’s similarly miss-firing Virtual Reality) his work demonstrates an indomitable spirit of invention and a heart-warming aversion to theatrical ‘cool’. His 76th play, Surprises is barrel-bottom Ayckbourn, but it cannot quite extinguish enthusiasm for his 77th.