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Surprises and Absurd Person Singular, Minerva Theatre, Chichester
Ben Porter (Sydney Hopcroft) and Laura Doddington (Jane Hopcroft) in Absurd Person Singular, picture by Robert Day
WITH 76 plays under his belt you might think Alan Ayckbourn would run out of ways in which to expose the human character.
Yet with his latest production – Surprises – he succeeds in, well, surprising anyone who felt the sting might have been drawn from his ability to reflect comedy for our time.
In fact, Chichester’s Minerva theatre is allowing theatre-goers the chance to contrast and compare Ayckbourn’s early work with today’s offering by also staging a 40th anniversary production of Absurd Person Singular, the piece that launched the playwright to world acclaim.
Not a double bill as such – both plays are presented for singular performances – the works are available to be seen on the same day on some dates creating an even better opportunity to contrast and compare.
With Absurd Person Singular Ayckbourn set the bar for painful, dinner party comedy, cleverly dissecting the social changes of the day. The 1970s were truly the decade of upheaval, following the freshness of the 60s, when gritty reality saw the rise of new men and stronger women.
Directed by Ayckbourne himself, his work still resonates today, and has just as much ability to reduce an audience to tears of laughter as three illmatched couples – the Hopcrofts, the Jacksons and the Brewster-Wrights – gather over three successive Christmas Eves to share drinks, small talk and, increasingly, their domestic problems.
Ambition mingles with alcoholism, snacks with suicide, as the drama revolves around the kitchens of the couples’ three homes.
Laura Doddington, Ben Porter, Bill Champion, Sarah Parks, Ayesha Antione and Richard Stacey take the parts (as they do for all the roles in Surprises). The blend is magnificent, the comedy sublime.
In Surprises the setting is not the 70s, but some time in the near future, and then a long way into the future, and then back again thanks to a world in which time travel is an expensive day trip.
Time and how it plays on the human psyche is the central theme to Surprises.
How can humans cope with the prospect of life almost without death? How can love and companionship hope to survive a lifespan of 180 years and counting?
Ayckbourn tackles the issues through extensions of technology we would recognise from today. Video links to Mars and reality dream games seem familiar, even if time-hopping bubbles are not yet the stuff of reality.
This is a world of androids with a sense of humour and humans lost in never-ending existence where aging is a matter of choice.
It is not the stuff of belly-laughs, although the attempts by security android Jan (played by Richard Stacey) to woo human lawyer Lorraine (Sarah Parks) were tremendously funny.
Chichester, as part of its own time travelling 50th anniversary festival season, has created a time bubble here by staging Ayckbourn’s latest work side by side with his first success. It is time travel that enables us to recognise a genius that is, well, timeless.
l Surprises and Absurd Person Singular run until September 8.