Alan Ayckbourn talking about his new arrival

Playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s wonderful trio of comedies opens at Watford Palace Theatre tomorrow. Here the writer talks about his latest production.

Monday, 10th March 2014, 4:48 pm
Alan Ayckbourn's Arrivials and Departures at Watford Palace Theatre.
Alan Ayckbourn's Arrivials and Departures at Watford Palace Theatre.

Arrivals & Departures is Ayckbourn’s 77th play. Here he talks to Simon Murgatroyd about his latest arrival.

What can you tell us about your new play, Arrivals & Departures?

Arrivals & Departures is a memory play, in short. It’s got a cast of 30 speaking parts shared between 11 actors plus two children; but while it’s a big play in scale, it’s not a big play in terms of the characters.

Alan Ayckbourn's Farcicals. Photo by Tony Bartholomew.

It centres around a single central relationship and is essentially all about two people, Barry and Ez. Against this background, there’s also a side plot running which is to do with an ambush to catch a terrorist, so it’s a play on several levels. Hopefully it will not confuse but amuse!

You describe it as a memory play, what does that mean?

Two strangers meet and the audience learn, basically, about their back stories through their memories. So at the end of the play, the characters themselves know precious little more about each other than they did when they started out. It was interesting for me to write as, normally, as the characters get to know each other so do the audience; but here only the audience gets to know the back-stories and only they realise how close these characters could be, but for the fact they’re strangers.

Was there anything which particularly inspired you to write the play?

Not really. It sort of evolved from this idea of telling a story through memories. Form always fascinates me. Arrivals & Departures has an interesting structure and having written so many plays, many of which have straight narratives, I think that nowadays one of the interests for me is to surprise and intrigue the audience through the way you tell the story, just as much as the story itself.

There aren’t that many new stories to tell, if indeed any, it’s only in the way they are narrated that the story becomes new. I think my audience has got used now to saying, ‘how’s this going to start?’ It’s also not just a matter of looking for new ways to tell a story, but keeping me fresh as well.

How do you write a story told primarily through memories?

Cinema has always been a prime influence on me, much more so than stage-work and the grammar of cinema is something immediately adaptable to the sort of theatre I work in, which is normally free of big set changes. I’m free to use cinematic techniques, such as the flashbacks in Arrivals & Departures. There’s a whole series of memories for Ez and Barry, which in their minds probably seem far longer than they actually are. How often do we get a flash of memory and you’ve apparently been back in time for about 20 minutes but only a second has passed in real time? You can’t have 20 minute scenes on stage and then say to the audience, only a second has passed in real time. So you have to try and condense the information in these memory scenes. It’s an exercise in precise information playwriting; writing a scene of less than a page which gives you 4 or 5 pages of information, which is also challenging as brevity is no guarantee of interest - brevity mercifully just doesn’t take very long!

The play also has an unusual setting. One of the most notable things about Arrivals & Departures is there isn’t a single domestic scene in the play. They’re all set on railway stations or bus stations - all to do with transportation. Even the flashbacks always happen in airports, multi-storey car-parks and so on; anywhere except a domestic sitting room. This is, I think, not unrelated to the title of the play, which also refers to other arrivals and departures in life, such as births & deaths.

What can you tell us about the main characters Ez and Barry?

Ez is a young female soldier who’s lost her faith in human nature. Barry is a traffic warden from Harrogate. He’s a fascinating character and not a million miles away from Douglas Beechey in my play Man Of The Moment, who also has had a troubled subtext of a life. Everything has fallen in on Barry, but he’s the sort of person who keeps the smile in place because his philosophy is, if you smile every day, you spread a little bit of happiness and you make the world a slightly happier place. But the consequence of that is you also don’t let anyone in. So there is a fortress about him and the smile excludes anyone taking him more than at skin-deep level. We get the privilege of moving in quite close and seeing beneath the smile.

Arrivals & Departures is playing in repertory with Time Of My Life are there any similarities between the plays?

Both plays are to do with time, which is interesting. But the way time is used in Arrivals & Departures is nowhere near as complicated as how time is used in Time Of My Life. I’m still looking at the old prompt script of Time Of My Life to see how we originally did it!

The third play is Farcicals, playing matinee performances on Wednesday and Saturday.

All running until Saturday. For tickets and info call the box office 01923 225671 or visit www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk