The highest point of James Blake’s ‘Retrograde’ comes in the chorus: over woozy, blaring synths, Blake draws out and repeats so show me where you fit, plaintive and to the point. The Arrival is scored nearly entirely by James Blake songs, and ‘Retrograde’, of course, features heavily. It transforms that lyric from something romantic to something familial, and still just as dark.
Bijan Sheibani’s play – directed and, for the first time, written by him – is suited to this unusual sound design by Gareth Fry. There’s diegetic sound too, but Blake, mainly with his latest album Assume Form, dominates. It’s music with a vein of unease running through it, impossible not to feel. And Sheibani’s story of a reunion between two brothers, strangers after the adoption of the oldest at birth, spills out of this vein like blood.
At first meeting, Tom (Scott Karim) keeps nervously bringing up the genetic similarities he and Samad (Irfan Shamji) must share: their ligaments probably take the same time to heal, their pain thresholds must be the same. Despite the differences which they quickly compare – the schools and universities they attended, the subjects they studied, their levels of fitness, their economic standing – they’re brothers. They’ve found each other now. Implicit in Tom’s excitement that he can now finally meet his birth parents and spend time with his brother is his expectation that everything, surely, is now going to change.
Sheibani doesn’t give us one definitive moment of the nascent relationship between the two brothers breaking, and nor does he provide a direct answer as to why Tom was adopted while his birth parents stayed together and had two more children. These things aren’t needed: instead, there’s a slick, just ambiguous enough sliding of these two brothers into each other’s lives, then skidding, bouncing off each other.
Shamji’s Samad is an English grad looking for a job in publishing, softer, not as athletic as Karim’s Tom; he can pronounce “khoresh” in the Iranian restaurant they go to, unlike Tom, brought up by white parents. Tom’s into his workouts, richer, didn’t go to a private school or to Cambridge. He wants more from this reconnection than his birth family can afford to give, checking that the walk from Bournemouth station to Samad’s family home really is nine minutes, wanting everything to go right. They inch chairs closer to each other, eager, a little fearful. They’re most similar in their defensively dismissive attitude to breakups – an early warning sign. The ending of relationships are rarely as painless as all that.
The play’s time skips are handled smoothly, and Samal Blak’s design focuses every attention on these two men, alone on a circular, revolving stage. There’s a great jogging scene, and Oliver Fenwick’s lighting is a treat: suddenly warm and slightly blue, like an expansive, welcoming space for Tom’s flat, and orange, green and blue as the stage turns, gently disorienting, as the brothers visit a club together.
The choreography by Aline David (another past co-collaborator, like Irfan and Blak, from Sheibani’s production of Clare Barron’s Dance Nation) sees a jerky, shirts-off dance to Andre 3000’s verse in ‘Where’s The Catch?’. Mimed, synchronised (but who’s copying who?) gestures of getting dressed which punctuate early scenes become real dressing. Tom and Samad dress for a slightly too sudden wedding, but things always devolve between family at weddings, don’t they? The brothers’ first hug is followed by a flash of maybe-violence, a fightlike dance, like we’re seeing what both are trying to hide.
For all I love ‘Retrograde’, the song punches so hard in its two uses here that I wonder if it slightly overpowers the subtlety of what Sheibani does in this play. I’ve made The Arrival seem grim, but its two actors are genuinely funny in their timing and chemistry, and its seventy minutes wholly absorb me. It’s well-observed, compassionate and beautiful, and shouldn’t be missed.
The Arrival is on at the Bush Theatre till 18th January. More info here.