Arrivals & Departures: World Premiere Reviews
Arrivals & Departures (by Libby Purves)
If (heaven forbid) this 77th play were to mark Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s retirement from 52 years of writing and directing, it would do him honour. It is his new masterpiece: ambitious, inventive, mischievously funny but emotionally serious with a shocking, ironic and redemptive final twist.
We are familiar with the Ayckbourn skill set: sharp comic exchanges, flashes back and forward, mirrored scenes, deluded characters and their put-upon victims. Here all are worked with immense care into a seamless theme about trustfulness. “Don’t get cynical,” says its betrayed and ruined hero, “it’s what you call cool, but it destroys you, sucks all the goodness out of your life.”
Ayckbourn is unfairly associated with small-cast suburban farce but his deeper instinct is neither small nor frivolous. Nor is it retro, but fed by a magpie taste for current foibles (his last play had an android in it, the one before skewered Neighbourhood Watch). Here a botched anti-terrorist operation frames a play about the military, business fraud, class tension and sexual violence.
We are on a London rail platform cleared for SSDO (Strategic Simulated Distraction Ops) to meet an arriving train and corral a suspected bomber. Terence Booth strides and barks as the Major and the opening minutes are bubblingly hysterical as, in a parody of theatre itself, he struggles to direct bored and unmotivated squaddies unconvincingly disguised as the public (a cast of 11 play 30 parts).
The comedy is rich, and we are never left long without it. Yet the heart of the play is a two-hander as the bare steel benches become other stations, airports and places where people met long ago. A chirpy, garrulous old Harrogate traffic warden, Barry (played by Kim Wall), has been brought down as “civilian witness” to identify the bomber, and a sombre, sulky young woman soldier, Ez (finely drawn by Elizabeth Boag), is detailed to protect him.
They are ordered to look natural and through the first act. Barry’s attempts at cheery, comical chat are interspersed with the silent, contemptuous woman’s flashback memories of loss, rebellion, love and disaster. In the second act the same scene is mirrored, with Barry’s longer memories revealed. Neither confides in the other but both their lives of trust, betrayal, stubbornness and nobility lie heartbreakingly open.
No spoilers. However, near the end there are moments when Arrivals & Departures might be Arthur Miller. Only, of course, funnier.
(The Times, 8 August 2013)
Arrivals & Departures (by Michael Billington)
What astonishes you about Alan Ayckbourn is his restlessly experimental nature. For his 77th play, set in a railway terminus during an undercover military operation, he pushes comedy as far as possible towards tragedy. He also, unexpectedly, takes a leaf out of Beckett's book - the second act is a more-or-less exact mirror of the first - and shows that even the process of waiting is rich in dramatic potential.
Ayckbourn sets up the situation beautifully, with a barking major rehearsing all the participants in a plan to ensnare a terrorist as he steps off a train at King's Cross. But Ayckbourn's focus is on two people yoked together as part of this hare-brained scheme: Barry is a cheery Harrogate traffic warden called in to identify the suspect, while Ez is a taciturn woman soldier whose mission is to babysit Barry. As this incongruous couple engage in random chat, they also fall prey to the unsolicited private memories that overtake them while they wait: in the first half, we learn the source of Ez's surliness and the reasons for her fear of physical contact, while in the second we discover that the bouncy Barry is in fact a figure of infinite complexity.
If I was reminded of any other Ayckbourn play, it was 1988's Man of the Moment: both offer a defence of uncynical goodness in a world that glamorises criminality. But this is also a wildly original play in its form: whole chunks of the second act are a repetition of the first, but the lines take on new colour because of the information we have gleaned. I also can't think of a more emotionally shattering moment in all Ayckbourn than an act of casual cruelty shown by Barry's daughter towards her devoted father: it reminds me of Balzac's Père Goriot and suggests Ayckbourn's play is, among other things, a meditation on the intensity of father-daughter relationships. Even if there are funnier Ayckbourn plays, there are few more affecting.
The author's own momentum-building production gets brilliant performances from Kim Wall as the jovial Barry, Elizabeth Boag as the moody Ez and Terence Booth as the mad major masterminding an undercover operation in which people reveal their true selves.
(The Guardian, 9 August 2013)
Arrivals & Departures (by Jane Shilling)
Alan Ayckbourn is 74 years old and has written 77 plays. It is an extraordinary oeuvre equalled only (in a different genre) by such prodigies of fictional productivity as the late dames Barbara Cartland and Catherine Cookson.
Sir Alan, however, is not a journeyman producer of popular entertainments, but a master craftsman. Four years ago he gave up his 37-year artistic directorship of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where most of his plays have premiered, but continues to write and direct.
In Shakespearean terms, his latest drama could be described as a problem play. Staged, as always at the SJT, in the round, the action consists of a set of neatly interlocking stories of lives in transition.
The framing device is a farcical anti-terrorist operation at a London station, led by the bufferish Major Quentin (Terence Booth). He has devised a mise-en-scène of incompetent personnel to intercept a malefactor codenamed Cerastes.
Assisting him are a civilian witness, Barry (Kim Wall), a Yorkshire traffic warden who attempted to issue Cerastes with a parking ticket, and his minder, Ez (Elizabeth Boag) a young, disgraced Army officer.
Ez warms to her charge and a kind of intimacy develops as her life story and then Barry’s are revealed in flashbacks.
Sir Alan writes in the programme of his fascination with the time dramas of JB Priestley, and there are echoes in the way farce and tragic psychodrama mingle here.
But the finish is not perfect. A revelation is left hanging, while his characterisation, still reliable for the middle-aged and elderly, falters so badly when it comes to Ez that it seems extraordinary a young actress didn’t take him aside to explain the improbability of his premise.
The loyal Scarborough audience enjoyed themselves, and, despite its problems, this dark work has elements of the familiar Ayckbourn charm.
(Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2013)
Arrivals & Departures (by Kevin Berry)
When stuck on a railway platform time drags, or appears to, and the mind tends to wander, reflecting on past meetings and remembering encounters at other train stations. This aspect of memory is the spark behind the staging of Alan Ayckbourne’s [sic] latest play, his 77th, and given Ayckbourn’s abiding interest in the depiction of time and memory it has an intriguing framework.
Ez and Barry (Elizabeth Boag and Kim Wall) are at a London station. He is a Yorkshire traffic warden, the one person able to identify an armed and dangerous terrorist who is due to arrive on a train from Harrogate. She is a top special forces soldier assigned as his minder. She is uptight, emotionally scarred and would rather be elsewhere. Other special forces operatives appear, trying to blend in with assorted silly disguises.
Wall is blissfully funny. Delivering a performance with the manner, ease and physical thrust of a top music hall comic from a generation ago.
The structure of Arrivals & Departures has the encounter between Ez and Barry repeated, word for word. First her memories, or vivid mental snapshots as Ayckbourn calls them, are acted out within the encounter and in the second act we experience his. James Powell’s performance as the young Barry is exemplary, balanced almost perfectly with that of Wall.
This play will puzzle. One does wonder where it is going and why there is little tension - but the denouement and the pathway to it are amply rewarding.
(The Stage - online, 7 August 2013)
Arrivals & Departures (by Charles Hutchinson)
E.M. Forster’s desire for human understanding was distilled in his 1910 novel Howard's End. “Only connect,” he wrote.
Alan Ayckbourn’s 77th play is a play of connections and disconnections; arrivals and departures; meetings at stations and elsewhere; and life’s path from birth to death. How much do we discover about each other in such encounters, and can we connect even when we know little, he asks.
Richard Linklater has made a series of films from an initial brief encounter between Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s equally loquacious Celine in Before Sunrise.
Now Ayckbourn’s meeting is on the hard white steel benches of a London rail terminus, where taciturn, surly young southern career soldier Ez Swain (North Yorkshire actress Elizabeth Boag in her SJT debut) must baby-sit chatterbox Harrogate traffic warden Barry (Kim Wall) in an anti-terrorist exercise to pounce on a terrorist, mounted by SSDO (the Ayckbourn-invented Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations unit).
They are awaiting the suspected bomber’s arrival from the north, where Barry issued him a parking ticket.
In charge of the covert operation is a jobs-worth Major (Ayckbourn regular Terence Booth in marvellously mad form), rehearsing role-playing lethargic soldiers in a theatre of war of a different sort. Ez and Barry must play roles too – ironically settling on playing strangers - but their true characters will come through, explaining why Ez says so little and shrivels up at being touched, while Barry’s chipper verbosity masks complexities beneath the bonhomie.
We connect with them more than they connect with each other for reasons of Ayckbourn telling their back stories in mirrored versions of the first and second half: Ez first, then Barry, in a series of flashbacks at various meeting points (played out by the rest of the cast of 11).
Neither becomes privy to the other’s story, but their life paths turn out to mirror each other. Both are victims of loss and delusion; family betrayal; a blinkered sense of responsibility; futile trust.
In his septuagenarian plays, Ayckbourn has been cramming in so much of life (like the later-years Shakespeare before him), and here his commentary on the modern world embraces swipes at military practices; cod psychology; uncaring, money-first lawyers; foul-mouthed inarticulacy; dysfunctional family businesses; selfish parents and selfish offspring.
And it’s a comedy! But it sails as close as Ayckbourn ever has to tragedy, recalling both Woman In Mind and Man Of The Moment. Ayckbourn may feel disconnected from much of what he sees around him - be it the human excesses of business malpractice, sexual abuse or terrorism – and yet, like Forster, he wishes that we could connect. Barry’s key speech has him decrying cynicism, and he is the playwright’s mouthpiece in that moment.
Ayckbourn, the playwright, is in a golden autumn, and Ayckbourn, the director, remains peerless on the Yorkshire stage and beyond, casting brilliantly once more in Wall and Boag. Another Ayckbourn arrival is another Ayckbourn departure, taking him once more into new territory, this time in an ending as potent as any opera.
(The Press, 10 August 2013)
Arrivals & Departures (by Ron Simpson)
In his 54th year as a playwright Alan Ayckbourn has not lost the ability to surprise. Arrivals & Departures is at least two plays in one and, if the joins are structurally uncomplicated, the initial concept is mischievously audacious.
An army major, in charge of a crack unit, is poised at a London rail terminus to arrest a dangerous terrorist. With him are a Harrogate parking warden who is a key identification witness and a troubled young female soldier in charge of taking care of the civilian. Their stories are told in flashback alongside the progress of the military operation and their conversation as strangers.
What is especially audacious is the deliberate jarring of tone. The military sections of the play are satirical-farcical-nonsensical, with Terence Booth finding every scrap of dignity available to the imperiously incompetent major and eight cast members (who all play at least three characters in the evening) having great fun as bolshie inadequates. Alongside this Ez, the silently bitter young soldier, clearly has an agonising life to reveal, while Barry of Harrogate is a jolly, impossibly loquacious force for both happiness and exasperation. Of course his is the story that will finally move the audience the most.
Elizabeth Boag brings intensity and a growing humanity to Ez and Kim Wall is outstanding as Barry. Very funny as a parody Yorkshireman, with immaculate comic timing, he develops into the representative of the play's positive message: looking for the best in people may be unfashionable, but ultimately it's the least worst way of getting along.
The eight actors in the excellent supporting ensemble all have the ability to switch from caricature to realism and back again, and the same can be said for Jan Bee Brown's costumes: the dressing-up gear for the military unit (all assuming stock roles to merge into the station crowds) is nicely over the top! Alan Ayckbourn's direction is, as ever, sharply unobtrusive.
(whatsonstage, 12 August 2013)
Arrivals & Departures (by Emma Miller)
Alan Ayckbourn’s most recent production in the round is a breathtaking tightrope walk, designed to entertain with its humour and to incite empathetic emotion from an audience guided from the Dad’s Army style slapstick comedy of the military operation narrative frame, to the multilayered intensity of the painfully human tales beneath the tale, all with the dazzling execution of a playwright with as much skill as he has experience.
Arrivals & Departures is not an easy journey from box office arrival to taxi departure and although I can say with absolute conviction that I was amused, much of the laughter was tempered with acute sadness and even shock, as the horrific was juxtaposed with the everyday in a way that the creative arts rarely achieve with such stark realism, even though real life does on a regular basis.
The frame narrative is a military operation designed to catch a suspect at a train station in London, and the military personnel are expected to “merge” with the general public by engaging in a variety of typical everyday railway scenarios. The focus is on civilian and traffic warden, Barry Hawkins a lead witness intended to identify the target, and Private Esme Swain his armed guard.
Their personal histories are played out alongside the present action in the railway station, and it is these stories, with their challenging, and on occasions disturbing, adult content that make up the hidden drama behind the everyday and which give this play the pathos of tragic emotion.
The actors deftly manage the shifts in tempo, displaying acerbic wit, the pain of betrayal and admirable comic timing. Special mention must go to the actors who performed the roles of Hawkins (Kim Wall) and Private Swain (Elizabeth Boag), who both realised their protagonists with great sensitivity to the complexity of humanity, and the trauma of the real-lived life.
Yet this is a play which repeats some of the action of the first act in the second, a dramatic challenge to any actor and the cast seize the baton extended to them by Ayckbourn without faltering. To paraphrase Vivian Mercier’s infamous review of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the Irish Times, this is a play where everything happens, twice, and we, the audience, are the better for watching it unfold.
(Dig Yorkshire, 13 August 2013)
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