Christopher Gray finds Alan Ayckbourn in darkly comic mood

A double dose of Alan Ayckbourn — indeed, a triple dose, with Wednesday’s Farcicals already come and gone — is delighting audiences at Oxford Playhouse this week. The Ayckbourn Ensemble, under the playwright’s direction, is offering his new play Arrivals & Departures and a revival of Time of My Life, which dates back to 1992.

The first finds Sir Alan in fine form as he examines the sadness in two very different lives in the unlikely context of an army security operation. The setting is an unnamed London railway terminus, presented in Jan Bee Brown’s design by three metal benches and the face of a station clock, fractured to reflect the disjunctions in time to which we shall be exposed (in both plays, in fact).

Thither is travelling, from the north, a much feared terrorist, Cerastes, named after the horned Greek serpent of legend. There to arrest him are forces under a martinet major (Terence Booth). Theirs is a ‘Simulated Strategic Distraction Operation’ — with soldiers posing as civilians. How badly they do this supplies much of the play’s humour.

Helicoptered in to help (he’s sick on the way) is garrulous fifty-something traffic warden Barry (Kim Wall) who is able to identify shadowy Cerastes, having tried to ticket him up in Harrogate. His loquacious jocularity (as he doesn’t call it) is considered quite normal in Yorkshire, he tells 23-year-old soldier Ez (Elizabeth Boag) who is there to ‘baby sit’ him. Indeed, he is thought “a bit on the retiring side”. Ayckbourn has lost none of his gift for giving us the language as it’s spoken Nor for ingenuity, you might think, as the play proceeds. During two near identical acts played out in the present, the pair reveal the public aspect of their chalk-and-cheese characters as they prepare for Cerastes’ arrival. Meanwhile, in a series of flashbacks involving passage through stations, we are shown the true, sorry picture first of her life and then of his.

Among much fine work from the 11-strong acting team there is a knock-out turn from Russell Dixon, as Barry’s boozy businessman dad.

This is a role he reprises to a degree in Time of My Life, a play written during Ayckbourn’s stint as Oxford’s Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre.

Again, we find the playwright experimenting with time, J.B.Priestley-like, as northern magnate Gerry (Dixon) entertains his abrasive wife Laura (Sarah Parks) to a birthday dinner in a restaurant (Slavic, at a guess) in company with their two sons and their partners. The meal over, the couple get drunk on an evil hootch supplied by the restaurateur (Ben Porter, on hilarious form), after which Laura makes a confession destined to blight their lives.

Meanwhile, in scenes at tables in the foreground, we go backwards in time to find how younger son Adam (James Powell) comes to be there with hairdresser Maureen (Rachel Caffrey) and forwards to see sad developments in the marriage of philandering elder son Glyn (Richard Stacey) and his wife Stephanie (Emily Pithon).

Arrivals & Departures
Oxford Playhouse
Until Saturday night

Time of My Life
Oxford Playhouse
Until Saturday matinée

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