Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Michael Cabot
Reviewer: James Garrington
We all find ourselves living by certain social norms, and hate saying the wrong thing; putting a group of people into an awkward social situation can provide huge opportunities for humour. Alan Ayckbourn is a master of the art, and such is the quality of Ayckbourn’s writing that it is relatively easy to put on a good production. Putting on a great production is somewhat harder, however, and this one doesn’t quite hit the mark in all areas.
Absent Friends is set in a suburban living room in the 1970s. Designer Simon Kenny has put a great deal of period detail into his set, providing a touch of nostalgia for those of us who remember the time when we could aspire to stone-clad fireplaces and split-level lounges. This static set compresses the action into a relatively tight area, highlighting the tensions that will start to emerge between the characters. When the play opens we find that a group of supposedly happily-married friends are gathering to put on a tea party to comfort an old friend, whose fiancée has recently drowned. As the afternoon progresses, we find that appearances can be deceptive.
Catherine Harvey plays hostess Diana, determined that everything should be ‘just so’ for the tea party. She is a women who doesn’t stop talking, covering her inner turmoil by an excess of words. Ayckbourn has written a peach of a part here, but Harvey doesn’t quite make the most of her opportunity to grasp it. Diana is a woman who is hugely irritating, someone most of us would hate to spend too much time with; we don’t quite feel that here, so the sharp contrast when her demeanour suddenly changes doesn’t quite have the impact it could.
Alongside Diana is monosyllabic, gum-chewing Evelyn (Kathryn Ritchie), who is totally unable to hold a conversation. Ritchie makes up for her lack of dialogue by producing a huge range of different facial expressions, some of which are a treat to behold. Evelyn is married to John (John Dorney), a man who can’t keep still. Dorney provides many of the high points of the evening with his excellent physical comedy, also getting many laughs without saying a word.
Kevin Drury plays Diana’s husband Paul, a businessman and bully, who Diana believes is having an affair with Evelyn. Paul is chauvinistic and menacing, though Drury sometimes slips instead into anger which doesn’t always feel appropriate for the play. The final couple are Marge (Alice Selwyn) and her hypochondriac husband Gordon, who hasn’t come because he is ill and whose increasingly bizarre mishaps we only hear about second-hand, via one-sided telephone conversations. Marge is the person who is always trying to do help people, keeping herself busy to hide her sadness at not having a child of her own, played by Selwyn with some quite nice timing. When bereaved Colin (Ashley Cook) is introduced into the mix, he is entirely oblivious to the effect he is having on everyone with his well-intentioned good humour and joy at the – however brief – relationship he had with his fiancée. Cook provides a good mix of positive outlook and lack of understanding as he, however well-intentioned he may try to be, carelessly stokes the simmering resentments until they burst through.
For this sort of comedy to work well, the characters have to be totally believable, with the humour coming as they try to keep up appearances whatever happens – and here they don’t quite pull it off. The audience should almost squirm with embarrassment as social norms are flouted, and director Michael Cabot doesn’t manage to achieve that effect; the characters are not quite annoying enough, and the pauses not quite long enough. Having said that, although this production of Absent Friends may not be up there with the very best, it still provides a good and enjoyable evening’s entertainment.
Runs until 13th June.