Alan Ayckbourn's revival of his 1992 hit Time of My Life makes a fascinating companion piece to his latest, Arrivals & Departures, with which it is on tour from the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. Both deal with time and the different perspectives it offers on the trials and tribulations of life, both deal with the effects of parents on children and both have memorable portrayals of a certain kind of middle-class nastiness.
The play opens at the 54th birthday celebrations of Laura in her and her husband Gerry's favourite Mediterranean-ish restaurant. They have invited their sons and their partners, one the recently reunited wife who is mother to their only grandchild, the other a girlfriend who is being met for the first time. After an embarrassing incident with alcohol spoils the meal, further scenes show the next few months in the life of the married couple and, in reverse, the preceding few months of the new lovers, as well as the rest of Laura and Gerry's evening, all of which takes place in the same restaurant.
Ayckbourn's brilliant structure and his talent for revealing information at just the right time open up new perspectives into characters, their hopes and fears, their motivations and their delusions. Part of the pleasure of the tricks with time is seeing how hidden stories are brought into the open, expectations upended and tables turned.
In an outstanding cast, Sarah Parks is particularly fine as Laura, mother of two sons, who makes no bones about her preference for one of them, and for whom no daughter-in-law will ever be good enough. "Where does he find them?" she asks about her favourite's new girlfriend. Both boys are in their different ways desperate to please her, the one damaged by her indifference, the other by his fear of disappointing her. Philip Larkin might have been thinking of her when he wrote that poem. Her poisonous tongue leaves no one unscathed.
There are vivid performances too from James Powell and Richard Stacey as the sons, the former perhaps too well-mannered and lacking in oomph to be setting up an arts magazine, the latter the self-regarding unimaginative son who has gone into his father's business and inherited his mother's insensitivity: "I'm pleased for you" he says to his wife when she announces she's pregnant, "Congratulations". Rachel Caffrey as the hairdresser who feels out of her depth, Emily Pithon as the wife who, her mother-in-law suggests, keeps her husband ‘on short rations' and Russell Dixon as Gerry, a role he played in the original production, also give first-rate performances. The comic continental waiters (all gamely played by Ben Porter) were perhaps more amusing 20 years ago.
Though the tone is dark, even bleak, the play is frequently funny and it is fascinating to see who ends up better off months after the fateful supper and who doesn't. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that living for "the happy moments" is what it is all about; the importance of appreciating the here and now and the sadness that we so rarely realise how happy we are until it is too late.
- John Campbell