Although he had toyed with the idea before, Alan Ayckbourn did not feel ready to bring science fiction fully into his work until his 34th play. A quarter of a century later and now on his 76th play, Surprises, the writer is a well-established exponent of the form.
Sci-fi has a unique power to divide audiences – hence Ayckbourn’s previous caution despite a lifelong love affair with writers such as Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick. But this new play is more Blake’s 7 than Blade Runner with a rather unconvincing array of “futuristic” clothes and clunky gadgets (including a couple of iPads) somewhat undermining the potential menace of the deeper themes.
It is really all about relationships and how to survive them – a “story with its head in the future but its heart in the past”, says the writer.
The three-act plot sees us whizzed from some future date where spoilt little rich girl Grace played by Ayesha Antoine, argues with her adoring yet controlling father over whether she can continue seeing an unsuitable boyfriend.
From there we are propelled to a world 50 years hence where, thanks to the advances of medical science, people can live for double their current life spans. Yet while the physical parts can be replaced and upgraded what becomes of us emotionally? And where does fragile short-lived love come into all this?
It’s hard enough for many of us to stay married even for our current extended spans. What happens when this is stretched even further into the distance? Life is meant to be a surprise, but time-travelling and medical advances take this element of the unexpected away.
How many holidays? How many relationships can we endure? So wonders Grace’s dad Franklin, aged 120, played with world-weary ennui by Bill Champion. But it is not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of good laughs in this piece, which was commissioned as part of the London 2012 Festival. Most of them are courtesy of the androids.
And there is a terribly tender scene at the end of act two when Sarah Parks’s cougar solicitor Lorraine cries as she dances with cackling robot Jan60 – two wildly incompatible lovers seeking solace where they can.
To 28 July, then 11 September to 13 October (01723 370541); Chichester Festival Theatre, 8 August to 8 September (01243 781312)