A middle-class dinner party farce. Monkey suits. Zorba the Greek. It all sounds like comedy by the book, but James P Mannion’s electric script and a confident cast propel Surprise into a league of its own; it’s a chaotic descent into hallucinogenic insanity in which the pace never flags for an instant.
As a group of recognisably Oxford caricatures gather for Paul’s surprise birthday party, simpering and superficially charming Guy (a superbly creepy Benedict Nicholson) takes a back seat to the action. But it rapidly becomes clear that he is an agent of chaos, a jester in tracksuit bottoms and Converses whose intentions grow ever more sinister – his contempt for the vacuous bourgeois professionals is palpable. All it takes is the spiking of a few drinks for Guy to turn from observer to puppeteer, even a twisted priest to the others’ slurred confessions, and for the second act to hurtle into a chemical-induced, surrealist nightmare.
Aside from a couple of clunky references to Facebook, the dialogue is snappy and flawless; moreover the excellent choreography and staging (Mannion also directs, alongside co-director and choreographer Jack Saville) flings characters back and forth, in and out, in a perpetual cycle of manic confusion. Silent moments of physical comedy take place on the balcony in conjunction with more sombre conversations inside, but the external setting also provides an observatory in which Guy can plot his Iago-like machinations. Each actor embraces the physicality of their role – Keelan Kember’s Rod is preening and languid, Clare Saxby as Clara vapid and trancelike, Cormac Connelly-Smith’s fist-pumping, alpha male Gideon. It’s rare for all seven characters to be onstage at once, leaving the goings-on behind closed doors largely to the audience’s imagination –except when we are allowed to see the occasional twist to drive the performance onward.
For all the hectic enthusiasm and levity, it’s clear that this play is not all fun and games, particularly into the second act. Old bitterness and hostilities are drawn out by Guy’s self-styled Machiavelli, relationships fall apart; the neatly ordered dining room degenerates into a scattered mess, chairs awry. Guy himself begins to assume a tragic role, for all his manipulations – the women continue to mock him as a ‘funny little man’, even as they fall prey to his mind-bending addition to the evening’s menu. No matter how much he tries to control or destroy them, he remains something of a clown. The finale, especially, comes to an ambiguous but seemingly bleak conclusion. That said, this production is a joy to behold, a whirling hurricane of madness and psychedelia, yet one which manages to remain oddly affecting – Carnage by way of Hunter S Thompson.