Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play, Arrivals and Departures, is a very clever piece of writing. It is set on a London railway platform where the climax of a sting to capture a terrorist from an incoming train is about to take place. There are plenty of laughs from the ineptitude of the team and the exasperation of their leader but we are taken beyond that into poignant and heartfelt feelings as the play progresses. We are allowed into the memories of the two main characters, a cheery Yorkshire traffic warden called Barry who is there as an identifying witness and his minder Ez, a surly policewoman, as they wait for the sting to take place and while they remain strangers to each other their past is revealed to us in flashback. We see the same action on the station platform twice, interspersed with Ez’s story in the first half and then with Barry’s in the second. This is a risky thing to do to an audience and it takes every bit of Ayckbourn’s experience and skill as a dramatist to bring it off. I am not going to give away what happens, but as we hear the lines again (sometimes with subtle additions showing us a bit more) they gain resonance from the information about the characters that we are learning. We are shown the two characters reacting in the present and also shown why they are as they are through the flashbacks. It’s a sobering process which reminds us that people are never quite what they seem and the best lesson in how to structure a piece of writing for the theatre that you could ever wish for.
There is some broad comedy but it wasn’t that which held my attention so much as the truthfulness and poignancy of the two central performances. Elizabeth Boag is totally convincing as Ez, an unpleasant woman on the surface who is surly and gives little away. As you find out why she has ended up like this and how this inability to connect with others has destroyed her chance of happiness you learn not to judge. Kim Wall is delightful as Barry. He is loud, annoying, well meaning and the kind of bloke that you dread sitting opposite you on a train. Wall’s comic timing is great, there were moments when I was reminded of Eric Morecambe and you won’t get higher praise from me than that. He has the gift that is gold dust to a really good comedian, an ability to draw people in and an instant likeability. When this is turned to poignant effect, as it is in the second half, you have something quite special. It is this character and this performance which gave the play real meaning and heart for me. It was also perfectly backed up by a lovely performance, beautifully judged by James Powell, who was completely believable and also very touching as Barry’s younger self. Goodness is a very hard quality to sell to an audience on stage and both Kim Wall and James Powell did this perfectly- two sides of the same coin.
I enjoyed this very much, the master playwright is on top form.