Alan Ayckbourn has written over 75 plays and the current Ayckbourn production on London’s West End is the 1974 play ‘Absent Friends’ directed by Jeremy Herrin (Much Ado About Nothing starring Whatsonstage Award Nominee Charles Edwards and Eve Best at Shakespeare’s Globe).
Absent Friends is based on true events in Ayckbourn’s life and the story is about six ‘friends’ who get back in touch after the tragic death of the fiancé of Colin in a drowning accident. Colin a former friend of the group not seen for three years. The five other friends invite Colin round for tea one Saturday afternoon at one of the couple’s homes and as with other Ayckbourn plays chaos ensues for the friends!
The cast of six includes comedy favorites Katherine Parkinson (IT Crowd), Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen), Steffan Rhodri (Gavin & Stacey), David Armand (Peep Show) alongside actresses Elizabeth Berrington who was last on stage playing Bev in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party at Hampstead Theatre and Kara Tointon in her second West End role after the critical acclaim of Pygmalion last year.
The set design for this production is superb (and very 70s brown!) by Tom Scutt with lighting by Peter Mumford and sound by Ian Dickinson. The 70s feel comes across as soon as you walk into the auditorium with an ornate clock as the backdrop when you arrive, ticking loudly alongside some great 70s tunes! The clock is also on stage in the living room where all the friends meet in the home of Diana and Paul.
When we first join the tea party as the curtain raises, only hostess Diana (Katherine Parkinson) and Kara Tointon’s Evelyn are already awaiting the upcoming events of the tea party. There is considerable tension between these two, though the reasons for it are, at first, unclear, later on we find Diana has every reason to dislike Evelyn and her own husband Paul (Steffan Rhodri) for their betrayal of friendship. Kara as Evelyn hardly speaks at all as the play starts, even though she has brought her baby Wayne along with her which one would think would spark a conversation…..but then again Evelyn barely says much beyond ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ for most of the play, and when her husband John (David Armand) arrives, he says she is a “strong, silent woman” for whom “misery is her natural state”.
When Reece Sheersmith’s Colin arrives, he is hardly in a state of deep mourning or despair about his fiancé’s demise. In fact he is about as happy as Larry! It is the others in the group who find themselves declining into depressive misery, especially Diana who sees her marriage at an end. In a sense, Colin’s misfortune sparks conflict among those who ostensibly wanted to cheer him up.
There is plenty of carefully crafted humour by Ayckbourn which exploits the situation without taking it to excessive lengths. For example, when Marge (Elizabeth Berrington) is asked if she wants milk in her tea she says “don’t drown it'” a remark which slips out before she realises the connection with Colin’s fiancé.
To cap it off Absent Friends is a darkly funny play and in the end a deeply moving comic drama. Memorably and hilariously bleak piece of theatre.
Performances: Monday – Saturday at 7.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Box Office: 08448717622
Harold Pinter Theatre
London SW1Y 4DN