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Absent Friends – Civic Theatre, Chelmsford

 

Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director : Michael Cabot
Reviewer:Michael Gray

The theatre of embarrassment. A very English genre, and one of which Ayckbourn is the undisputed master.

There’s no better example than this gem from forty years ago. An era cleverly captured in Simon Kenny’s evocative set. York Stone fireplace (electric fire where the log-burner would be today), frosted glass room divider, modular shelving. And leather lounge furniture for our six friends to sit and talk, intimacy and confrontation heightened by the forced proximity.

It’s a tea party – old fashioned even then – for the benefit of an old friend. Colin has moved away, got engaged, and lost his fiancée, drowned by a treacherous undertow.

And now he’s back, in his slacks and his natty cardigan, showing the holiday snaps, blithely dispensing insights and advice like Evelyn Home. The dramatic irony here is that his rose-tinted view sees only happy fulfilled relationships, the promised land now denied him by bereavement. Whereas in the real world, the three couples are plagued by jealousy, infidelity, insecurity and guilt.

It’s not an easy task to make these characters absolutely credible while still serving the comedy. Two performances stand out. Catherine Harvey’s hostess, trying to cope with her insensitive bully of a husband (Kevin Drury), a nasty piece of work with a shaved head and rollneck sweater. She runs herself down, puts on a brave face, but is clearly on the edge. And her two melt-down moments, involving double cream and the Mounties, are perfectly judged. A finely drawn character. And John Dorney, as the fidgety, hyperactive John, never still for a moment, upset by any reference to death. An excellently observed physical performance.

Colin the catalyst is played by Ashley Cook; gawky, geeky, his body language awkward, reflecting the uncomfortable effect he has on the others. Evelyn, who’s brought baby Wayne to the party, is nicely done by Kathryn Ritchie, nasal, monosyllabic, given to staring briefly before replying. Couldn’t be more different from the lovely Marge [a very entertaining Alice Selwyn], showing off her new orange platform shoes, correctly predicting that she’ll say the wrong thing, long-suffering wife to Gordon, obese, immature and absent, indisposed, from the gathering.

Michael Cabot’s production is perfectly paced, and treads confidently that fine line between comedy and pathos. The production values are high: a proper pram, Woman’s Own, brown glazed tea things. And that social embarrassment is often excruciating to watch.

At the end, just before and just after Colin has finally made tracks, we glimpse a deeper, darker drama, the characters grouped uncomfortably in their despair. Marge remembers her new shoes, and Evelyn hums the lullaby that began the action precisely two hours earlier.

Touring until July 18

  Writer: Alan Ayckbourn Director : Michael Cabot Reviewer:Michael Gray The theatre of embarrassment. A very English genre, and one of which Ayckbourn is the undisputed master. There's no better example than this gem from forty years ago. An era cleverly captured in Simon Kenny's evocative set. York Stone fireplace (electric fire where the log-burner would be today), frosted glass room divider, modular shelving. And leather lounge furniture for our six friends to sit and talk, intimacy and confrontation heightened by the forced proximity. It's a tea party – old fashioned even then – for the benefit of an old…

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