No-one understands the British middle classes better nor has ruthlessly explored their failings more effectively than Alan Ayckbourn.
Ever since the 1970s when he scripted a string of runaway successes based around every imaginable social gathering in the suburban household, from the kitchen to the bedroom, he has been clearly identified as our most important commentator on such social matters.
There are those who speculate that much of his finest work is semi-autobiographical – or at least inspired by his inner view of life.
But what is undeniable is his instinctive ability to ruthlessly extract every giggle, titter, laugh, and bellyache from the domestic and married lives of Middle England while still retaining an extraordinary empathy with and sensitivity for those vulnerable characters at the heart of his humour.
With some 76 plays to his credit, his repertoire has not been confined merely to the frailties of middle class marriage. He has never been afraid to push boundaries. But, one senses, this is the ground where he is most comfortable and ultimately at his best.
The latest work from this script-machine is Surprises.
In every sense it appears to tackle a setting which is alien. Set in the future where time and space travel are suddenly possible and the human life-span has been extended to 180 years, on the face of it this is new territory.
By Ayckbourn’s own admission this is a play about longevity and its impact on emotions and relationships. We might find a happy marriage for up to 50 years possible – but if we were to live twice as long could our relationship go the distance as well?
So after a less than confident start in the first act as Ayckbourn feels his way through the futuristic concepts he has created – like a creaky early film production of The Time Machine – we quickly find ourselves returned to the safe territory of marriage and the middle classes.
By the second act, Ayckbourn is almost at his best.
When we reach the third, he has maintained his promise to surprise.
Surprises plays in tandem with one of his greatest plays from the 1970s Absurd Person Singular – and the small cast is perfect.
The extraordinary relationship between hard-nosed lawyer Lorraine (Sarah Parks) and an android Jan (Richard Stacey) is a mini-masterpiece – a novel detour, even by Ayckbourn’s standards.
Surprises, especially in the shaky opening moments, is not vintage Ayckbourn but it still retains his unique and mesmerizing quality of holding a mirror to aspects of all of our lives and making us laugh at and weep for ourselves.