Alan Ayckbourn’s obsession with shifting time in his stories is a neat trick.
But audiences can be left feeling a sense of déjà vu. Haven’t we just heard that dialogue? Isn’t that the same scene from the first act?
Actually not. In a trio of comedies, grouped together and called the Ayckbourn Ensemble, you soon appreciate the writer’s consummate skill as a master story-teller through the subtle changes that open up each story.
Arrivals & Departures, his latest, is about transition and what happens when an ordinary man is thrown into an extraordinary situation.
How many times have you sat on a train and wondered about your fellow passengers? You know nothing about them but you may imagine what their lives are like. The train pulls up at a station and they’re gone.
For just a few minutes you’ve shared a moment in time.
Yorkshire traffic warden Barry Hawkins has been flown by military helicopter from his home town to Kings Cross so that he may identify a wanted terrorist who he tried to ticket days earlier.
The army has had info that the wanted man is arriving in London by train. A covert operation is mounted with the concourse swamped by undercover officers and Barry is babysat by the moody and taciturn Ez until he can do his turn and identify the bomber.
So there they sit, waiting.
In the first act, through a series of flashbacks, we learn about the life of Ez, and in the second, Barry. A lot of the dialogue is exactly the same but, you suddenly realise the actors have swapped positions and there ARE subtle changes.
The biggest is when Barry confronts the wanted terrorist who is posing as a rail employee. After two hours of gentle comedy the denouement hits you like a runaway train.
In Farcicals, which entertained matinee audiences, two couples meet for a barbecue. Penny, all self-assured, is married to successful prestige car salesman, Reggie, while plain and frumpy Lottie is hitched to Teddy.
Again relationships are put under the microscope with the first act concentrating on Lottie’s attempts to revitalise her marriage and the second, the fallout from a damaging revelation.
The third comedy is Time Of My Life, which previously played at WPT three years ago, set around a family birthday party and the host from hell.
All three plays are performed to perfection by a large company. The first two are led by Ayckbourn stalwart Kim Wall, whose role as Barry is just a masterclass in nuances.
There’s the repetitive muttering under his breath as he sucks on a sweet, the cheery chappy persona hiding heartache, his wanting to please. It’s a sublime performance by an actor who innately knows the playwright’s characters and how to bring out the best in them.
Often Barry just stands, staring into the distance. He’s one of life’s little, downtrodden, men, who always tries to be optimistic no matter what brickbats are thrown at him, and beautifully captured by a great character actor.
Elizabeth Boag confidently handles a huge transformation and personality change from emotionally scarred army officer, Ez, in Arrivals to Penny, a randy suburban housewife, in Farcicals.
While Bill Champion copes admirably with playing the by-the-rules army CO, Quentin, who drills his troops in covert ops, and adulterous Teddy.
A tremendous threesome from Mr Ayckbourn which represents the award-winning writer at his very best.
The Ayckbourn Ensemble is at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, 24 – 29 March 2014.