The Surprise Party
Until 15 February
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke
Some years ago, I was at a political candidates meeting where one of the hopefuls illustrated his critique of the current system by saying, quite seriously, “The invisible hand has eaten all its fingers… and is now the invisible stump!” And that was far from the nuttiest thing said that night.
These thoughts came to mind as I was watching The Surprise Party, Circa’s latest summer comedy. Written by Dave Armstrong and directed by Conrad Newport, it opens with the low-rent election-night gathering of a fictional minor party hoping to pick up a seat or two.
Their hopes are rapidly exceeded, creating a monumental headache for the party’s leader, Doug (Alex Greig), as it dawns on him that the fruitcakes further down his party list might actually start exercising some kind of influence. And although Armstrong has a political point or two to make – about power, its difficulties and its seductions – the play is mostly an excuse to gently poke fun at those eccentrics and characters who populate the edges of mainstream politics.
Anchoring the play, Greig gives a wonderful performance somewhat in the vein of Graham Chapman’s King Arthur in Monty Python’s Holy Grail: a basically sane (though flawed) man, trying to achieve reasonable aims but thwarted at every turn by complete idiots. As his right-hand woman Kura, Bronwyn Turei is also very good, her character providing a bridge between Doug’s (relatively) normal persona and the rest of his ragtag bunch of oddballs. The oddballs themselves are mostly there for laughs, although they also furnish some sharp lines about tokenism on political party lists, among other subjects.
The test of any such play, of course, is whether it’s funny, and fortunately the answer here is ‘yes’ – although not consistently. The zingers come thick and fast, perhaps too fast. Never having tried to write a comedy, I assume the fear here is that if the snap and crackle slackens off, the audience will get bored. But my feeling is that the funniest shows, on screen or on stage, allow a little bit more breathing space between laugh lines – not least because it ensures that the best ones don’t get buried, which happens occasionally in The Surprise Party.
The narrative arc, conversely, could be a touch tighter. It was noticeable that the audience applause was extremely warm after the strong first scene, based around the election-night party, but much less so after the ‘morning after’ second scene, which felt like it somehow needed to be condensed.
Happily things picked up promptly in the third scene, where the realities of political power both revealed new depths to the assorted characters and sparked some of the funniest lines. Bolshie Ailsa (Hannah Kelly), a former bus driver turned unlikely foreign minister, was especially good, while the deliberately irritating pair of millennial Zoe and hipster Sam (Danielle Meldrum and Sepelini Mua’au respectively) had plenty of strong moments. The one character that sadly never fired was Leon (Vincent Andrew-Scammell), probably because the conspiracy-theorist lines were too familiar and the maths-incompetent ones too broad.
That didn’t seriously impede an overall enjoyment of the play, though, which as well as taking aim at genuine eccentrics had some sharp lines at the expense of the Greens and, to a lesser extent, Labour. Which reveals a fundamental, and possibly unintentional, irony about the play. Contrary to the promises of MMP, the diversity of political parties is now rapidly shrinking, with the two big players hoovering up something close to 90% of the votes, the next two smaller parties struggling to stay over the threshold, and ACT on life support. The meteoric rise of a minor party that the play sets out has never seemed less likely.