This achingly bittersweet play about two brothers separated by adoption is the debut play by director Bijan Sheibani
Bijan Sheibani has directed some great stuff over the years, but at no point was there any reason to suspect that the fella had such a beautiful, painful debut play in him as ‘The Arrival’. It’s a sparse, perceptive and deeply bittersweet story about two brothers of British-Iranian extraction who strike up a tentative friendship in their twenties when the elder, Tom (Scott Karim), who was given up for adoption, tracks down his younger brother Samad (Irfan Shamji), who was raised by their biological parents.
As you’d expect, it’s stylishly directed, on a blank circular set by Samal Blak, enlivened by killer sound – lots of James Blake songs! – and lighting by Gareth Fry and Oliver Fenwick, and intensive aerobic movement from Aline David. But in fact, it’s not a flashy or even particularly contemporary-feeling play. Instead, it’s a miracle of economy, unfolding in a series of short, tentative scenes, delicate and slow in and of themselves, but as a whole devastating, as much for what is unsaid.
At first, the bookish Samad seems nervous and unsure of himself, happy to go with the flow of the motor-mouthed Tom. Their relationship warms; they spend time together, and there’s talk of moving in. But there’s always a tentativeness there and an imbalance. Samad has a family, his family, their family. Tom has foster parents, but he has a yearning to spend time with his biological relatives that simply isn’t reciprocated: he isn’t a prodigal son, but a curiosity.
The balance of power shifts: eventually, Samad’s life becomes less aimless and he stops needing Tom as a crutch; things sour, not explosively, but painfully. Ultimately, it’s a play about the power of belonging, and the pain of not belonging, and the difficulty in articulating these feelings.
I’m not aware Sheibani has explained why he felt the need to write this play: it has the taste and feel of something deeply personal, but who knows? Any which way, I’m glad that he wrote it; if he never wrote another word, this is something to be proud of. But I hope there’s more.