Interview: The Press (31 July 2013)

This interview was published in The Press on 31 July 2013.

Arrivals & Departures
by Charles Hutchinson

Plenty of Alan Ayckbourn plays have arrived and departed from the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

His 77th,
Arrivals & Departures, opens tonight as part of a summer season that also features his revival of his 1992 northern comedy Time Of My Life and two new overlapping lunchtime Farcicals farces, The Kidderminster Affair and Chloë With Love, that start on August 23.

Arrivals & Departures evolved from the idea of telling a story through memories,” says Alan. “Nowadays, one of the interests for me as a writer is to surprise and intrigue the audience through the way you tell the story, as much as the story itself. There aren’t that many new stories to tell: it’s only in the way they are narrated that the story becomes new.”

His setting is a London mainline rail terminus, where an elaborate trap is deployed in an attempt to capture a dangerous and elusive terrorist, codenamed Cerastes. Major Quentin Sexton and his hand-picked SSDO (Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations) Unit are poised, ready to pounce.

To assist them, civilian witness Barry Hawkins, and his minder Ez Swain are on hand to confirm final identification. What could possibly go wrong? For the luckless Major, plenty can go awry, when his key witness turns out to be a garrulous, suspiciously unreliable, middle-aged Harrogate traffic warden, and the minder a troubled young female soldier with severe attitude problems.

“The play has a theme I’ve explored before - and indeed other dramatists have done so many times - and that is how isolated as individuals we are from each other, but here two strangers get to know each other and the audience gets to know them so we share in that process,” says Alan. “When these two people - a traffic warden and a soldier - from completely different circumstances and of different ages meet, you wonder what will happen to them, as they know nothing about each other.”

Alan noted how we have relationships in life where we remain total strangers. “That happens quite a lot to all of us, like when the man in the corner shop remains the man in the corner shop apart from an occasional chat about the weather or a ‘How’s your wife?’,” he says. “So my first theme in
Arrivals & Departures was to ponder how close they could become when coming from such different starting points - and you realise they could be close, so the ending is quite touching.”

So touching that Alan wrote the
Farcicals farces because he was “so tearful after finishing Arrivals & Departures as it becomes a sort of love story”.

“In the end, the play is an interesting exercise in telling back stories in short flashbacks against the flow of the main story,” says Alan. “The other thing that interests me is that all the flashbacks have been suggested by sitting at a railway station because most chance meetings happen in places of transportation when you’re meeting someone or coming home, whether it’s a bus station a bus stop or a train station.”

Play number 77 finds Alan “as always, trying to move somewhere slightly different in my writing”. “I’m too old as a dramatist [he is 74] to claim anything is original now, but it is original for me,” he says.

“I need to keep myself interested, and even after so many plays, there must be gaps in what I’ve written about; I just need to know where they are and I knew with this play that I was treading new ground with new characters and new situations and new themes, though you always leave familiar thumb prints.”

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