By the interval of Alan Ayckbourn‘s latest offering (he is both writer and director) you will certainly be intrigued. You may feel that you haven’t laughed as much as you had hoped in the first half and that some of the characterisation isn’t as convincing as that of the master at his best, but you will definitely want to know what happens next. As the second half begins and you realise how cleverly Ayckbourn has structured the play, you may feel that old magic as he deftly reveals more and more about his characters and deepens and darkens matters as the climax approaches. Unfortunately, for this reviewer at least, the ending isn’t really earned by what has gone before.
The setting is a railway station somewhere in London where a shadowy arm of the state is engaged in setting up a barmily complex trap to arrest a dangerous terrorist suspect. Its operatives are performing various roles rather badly in a big set-up designed to convince the suspect that all is well. We meet Ez, formerly Esme, a member of the military with an unhappy past, and Barry, a garrulous Yorkshire traffic warden who, having tried to give the criminal a parking ticket, will be needed as a witness to confirm his identity.
As they chat and wait for the arrival of the train carrying the suspect, we see flashbacks to their pasts. They are well done: the sensation of learning more about these strangers is genuinely moving even when some aspects of their characters don’t ring true. Ez’s relationship with her boyfriend seems unlikely and there are times when Barry seems more caricature than character. Ez’s mother and Barry’s wife too verge on the cartoonish. Barry’s story shows him to be the moral centre of the evening, a man who always thinks the best of people and is willing to take the risk of being disappointed sometimes. The performances by Elizabeth Boag and Kim Wall in the main roles are excellent.
Ayckbourn shows that in his eighth decade, with over 70 plays under his belt, he still has his eye on contemporary targets – indeed David Hare said recently that the most important thing to be writing about at the moment is what is going on in the security services. There is a strong class animus to the play. Barry makes no bones about his preference for the sort of ‘real’ people who travel in standard rather than first class and the portrayal of Ez’s boyfriend’s posh parents and the major orchestrating the operation (more of a Dorset than a Yorkshire man, he says) are particularly damning. For all its intelligence and humanity, Arrivals & Departures is a somewhat frustrating piece whose ingenious structure cannot overcome certain implausibilities.
– John Campbell