Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Michael Cabot
Reviewer: Pete Benson
Alan Ayckbourn is one of our most prolific and popular playwrights. Absent Friends was originally performed in his own Scarborough Theatre venue forty years ago. Ayckbourn’s plays appear deceptively simple, as many a mangled amateur production has revealed over the years. They are a real test of an actor and director.
This is one of the writer’s earlier works in which absent friend Colin returns to his previous friendship circle where relationship tensions have since become taut. The play is staged on a simple set of a well-to-do living room. Its décor suggest we are back in the early seventies.
We join the real time story as the expectant friends await Colin’s arrival. Hostess Diana played by Catherine Harvey is teetering on the verge of cracking up under the pressure of her husband John’s suspected infidelity. She delivers a brilliant speech about her suspicions of the affair. In a typical Ayckbourn twist it is only a little later we realise that Evelyn who is the recipient of the monologue is the one she suspects as being the other party. Evelyn played by Kathryn Ritchie is a sour faced, disinterested character who has little to say. In Ritchie’s capable hands every word and grunt she makes suggest disdain. The diplomatic but also excitable Marge arrives on the scene. She is initially a contrasting air of cheerfulness and actress Alice Selwyn has great fun as she staggers around on clunky awkward new shoes that Marge has bought on impulse. Selwyn has very nice comic timing. Once the wives are established we meet the husbands including Marge’s permanently off stage overweight husband who amazingly is the play’s main source of slapstick. John Dorney as Evelyn’s husband has a challenging task as throughout the entire play he is never still, always fidgeting in a permanent state of either getting up or sitting down which Dorney sustains with great humour, at times becoming quite spastic as the pressure on him builds.
Newly bereaved Colin arrives and in contrast to his friends appears unexpectedly happy and centred. Colin is portrayed by Ashley Cook as a clever combination of an overly positive man with a weak body language. He claims to be a shrewd judge of character but is actually almost totally oblivious and this is a part of the genius of Ayckbourn’s script. At one high point in the play Colin paints a vivid picture of the heady romance of Diana and John’s early courtship years which sits in painful contrast to the wreck of a marriage we, but not Colin, can see surrounding him. The play has all of the favourite Ayckbourn tropes, awkwardness, simmering emotional pain, embarrassment, layers of irony and clever, funny dialogue.
The cast give a workmanlike, competent and confident performance but they are never amazing. We don’t quite believe these are real people and Ayckbourn is all about the turmoil seeping from under the veneer of normality. The turmoil can be gross and extreme but this should not be so of the characters for they are the illusion of normality. It is a very difficult balance to achieve which does not quite pay off here. However even workmanlike Ayckbourn is a delight and despite a few poorly executed stage scuffles and some missed timing during a scene of high chaos this is an enjoyable and funny production.
Runs until 18th July 2015