Surprises at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester

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Surprises indeed. After more than half a century dissecting love in the here and now, Alan Ayckbourn travels through time to look at love in the not-too-distant future in his 76th play Surprises.

With avatars and all sorts of other futuristic gadgets, this is suddenly sci-fi Ayckbourn. It’s bold, it’s beautifully played, it’s huge on imagination and it very nearly works.

The opening Act shows that little has changed, with parents ‘sometime soon’ still standing in the way of stroppy teenagers as they parade their naïve love interests – except that this time the man who is about to betray 16-year-old Grace suddenly visits her from the future to apologise in advance for his looming treachery.

It’s an intriguing start to a play which reaches its peak with the arrival of Jan, Richard Stacey’s superbly-realised android who starts to malfunction when something distinctly-human starts to stir in his robot loins. Here we get Ayckbourn at his best: machine apes man, learns just how unfathomable woman is and discovers the necessity of those little white lies that will eventually destroy him.

But the momentum is largely lost after the play’s second interval. Android Jan, now looking oddly Beatle-ish, continues to entertain, but the avatar games fall flat, and the play somehow leaves you with the impression that it hasn’t all quite come together.

Surprises lacks the more immediate, more classic pleasures of Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, with which it plays in repertoire; the real surprise will be if there’s very much of an afterlife for this little look into the future.

Until September 8.

Phil Hewitt