Absurd Person Singular/Surprises(review)

Alan Ayckbourn’s most successful play, Absurd Person Singular, is 40 years young and still as fresh as a daisy. The highs and lows in the lives of three couples over three successive Christmases is a festive indulgence for audiences this summer at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre where the classic comedy is playing in rep with the writer’s latest creation, the less blousy and more thought provoking futuristic drama, Surprises.

APS was once rated in terms of belly laughs and chuckles and it still scores top marks. In contrast Surprises has to work hard to raise a titter from audiences. There’s no doubt that its story about love and longevity is a subject close to the writer’s heart but it’s an overly ambitious attempt to cover a huge topic that only occasionally hits the mark.

In terms of commercial success APS is a real crowd pleaser thanks to a hard-working and talented cast. It opens with the obsessively houseproud Jane Hopcroft (Ayckbourn regular Laura Doddington) scrubbing her already gleaming home in preparation for two sets of guests who may be able to put her ambitious husband, Sid, on the road to success.

About to arrive for drinks and Xmas nibbles is bank manager Ronald Brewster Wright and his wife Marion and architect Geoff Jackson with his pill-popping wife, Eve.

It’s like something out of a Python sketch. The Hopcrofts are very lower middle class and aiming high, the Jacksons are on their way and the Brewster-Wrights live in a big house and appeared to have it all.

But do they?

We spend the next two Christmases in the kitchens of the other two couples. By far the funniest section of the play, guiltily so, is the second when Eve (Ayesha Antoine) spends the entire act attempting to commit suicide watched, unwillingly aided and ultimately thwarted by the other four characters.

The comedy is richly dark throughout.

Ayckbourn’s Surprises finds us in the future. Humans are living a ridiculously long time and relationships are fraught with problems – whether you’re 17 or 70.

Sarah Parks steals both plays with two incredible roles –in APS as the snobbish Marion Brewster-Wright – one of those terrifying blue stockings with a cut glass accent, a helluva drink problem and the ability to deliver a series of put downs without actually appearing to move her mouth.

In Surprises she’s a lonely 60-year-old business executive who finds love with a smart-talking android. If that’s the future then the sooner they introduce euthanasia the better.

The pair run until September 8. For tickets call the box office 01243 781312 or go online www.cft.org.uk

*As a sidebar I’d like to say how wonderful it was to meet two ladies from Hemel Hempstead who had travelled to Chichester to enjoy a night at the theatre. It’s a trip I’d recommend to everyone. Try an overnight stay in either The Ship or The George, in Chichester’s North Street, plus a pre-theatre meal at either establishment or at the theatre’s own superb restaurant, topped off by a wonderful night’s entertainment at the best regional theatre in the UK. A must for theatre fans.

Coming up is Antony and Cleopatra with Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall and Michael Pennington and Noel Coward’s Private Lives with Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens.

ANNE COX