A Surprise Review: Humour, comfort, tears and terror as Smock Alley’s A Surprise takes to the stage

Patrick O’Sullivan’s A Surprise debuts at the Scene and Heard Festival and confronts its audience with the jarring spontaneity of life’s pitfalls

Julius Caesar once said, “no one is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected”, and indeed I found this to be true of Smock Alley Theatre’s production of A Surprise. The writer, Patrick O’Sullivan, manages to compact a variety of themes and life stories into a sharp 30 minute play, portrayed in a chillingly effective way thanks to the skills of director Richard Lombard Vance. By delving into the issues of loss, friendship, inner city life and illness, as well as forcing us to face the truth about child molestation in today’s society, O’Sullivan brings us on an emotional journey before leaving us with an indelible scar as the lights go down. The simple yet ingenious title presages the outcome of a play which humours us, comforts us, and prompts us to shed a tear or two before epically terrorising us.

This play, which was presented by Mental Magpie Productions during the Scene and Heard festival, depicts a scene of two old friends, Jay and Martin, played by Barry John Kinsella and Louie Magee respectively, enjoying drinks and smoking joints together on Christmas Eve, when a young girl, Sarah, played by Thuy Vinh O’Sullivan, runs out onto the stage as she is unable to sleep. The little girl is completely silent at first; so silent, in fact, that it is quite unsettling — something just doesn’t feel right about this. Be that as it may, she soon runs off to bed, leaving Jay, a single parent, and Martin, a fellow father, to joke around, have a little ‘sing song’, and reminisce about old times. The mention of cancer somewhat alters the atmosphere. However, the writer’s addition of light-hearted humour during this sequence acts as a kind of defence mechanism to coddle the audience as well as the characters in an effort to help them cope with this revelation. A third character, Jay’s sister, Dee, played by Sarah Griffin, is then introduced and the pair appear to be very close. Having also been raised in inner city Dublin, she seems to be concerned with the kind of environment in which Sarah is growing up in, yet Jay reassures her that Sarah is fine. Meanwhile, it becomes clear to the audience that Martin and D share a romantic history. Jay is clearly oblivious to this as he is far too distracted by the fear of anything happening to him and, consequently, the prospect of Sarah being left on her own. Although Martin tries to reassure Jay that he would always watch over the young girl, Jay’s concern proves entirely valid near the end of the performance when Jay drunkenly leaves Martin alone with Sarah to go to the shop and we discover a dire truth about Martin. What worsens our apprehension is the question of whether or not Jay will return safely.

The director chooses quite a modernised and vacant set for this production which consists primarily of squeaky clean furniture and a limp artificial Christmas tree. The actors who played Jay and Martin were successful in convincing us from the offset that this would be a relaxed and comedic play. Even as upsetting aspects are introduced, a playfulness exists between the two actors which somehow warms our hearts while simultaneously breaking them. This play is replete with motifs applicable to our own lives, and so, in a peculiar way, it is somewhat comforting to watch Martin make Jay laugh and help him deal with what he is going through. The sense of melancholy attached to the immense loss which Jay has encountered throughout his life, such as the loss of Sarah’s mother, his loss of faith in a musical career and now the loss of his health, is counteracted by a light which festers from the loving relationship he shares with his daughter and his genuine friendship with Martin. Therefore, the audience watches this play with a certain comfort until we realise that Martin is hiding something. As Martin whispers to himself, he reveals a trauma from his childhood which has chased him into adulthood, manifesting the bitter consequences of a brutal experience. It is here that the intimate nature of Smock Alley suddenly makes us feel uncomfortably close to the action. The relatable element of the play is what makes this ghastly ending harder to swallow.

A Surprise should undoubtedly be commended for its ability to prompt deep introspection on behalf of its audience. The production also explores many extreme topics in a short space of time. A surprise is certainly one way to describe the production, yet the title intentionally undercompensates for the impact the plot twist will have on the viewer. This play will leave you both shaken and astounded, and perhaps more wary of the people who are closest to you.