Anyone who’s ever sat through an awkward social occasion will be able to appreciate the comic potential of Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn. This new production, directed by Michael Cabot, marks London Classic Theatre’s fifteenth anniversary, and doesn’t disappoint. While there’s plenty to laugh, and cringe about, the play also has a darker side, and really makes you stop and think about what’s important in life.
The play’s set in the 1970s, in what would then have been a modern, stylish house belonging to Diana and Paul. They’ve invited around some friends – new parents Evelyn and John, and Marge, who’s had to leave her ailing husband Gordon at home (not for the first time). The real purpose of the tea party, we soon learn, is to console Colin, an old friend of the group, whose fiancée recently drowned. But with cracks beginning to show from the moment the curtain rises, it quickly becomes apparent that maybe Colin isn’t the one who needs help.
Ayckbourn’s script is pitch perfect, inviting us to laugh at the eccentric cast of characters, but not in an unkind way. Some, like anxious hostess Diana (Catherine Harvey) and innocent, well-meaning Colin (Ashley Cook), are instantly likeable, while others – Kathryn Ritchie’s sneering, gum-chewing Evelyn springs to mind – take a bit of warming to. But each eventually reveals a vulnerable side, and you can’t help but feel for them, as it visibly begins to dawn on each member of the group that perhaps they’ve been chasing all the wrong things in life.
Nonetheless, the play’s very funny – even if the laughs are usually more out of embarrassment than anything else. From Diana’s attempt to confront a bored Evelyn over her suspicions of infidelity, to Marge’s (Alice Selwyn) inability to take her foot out of her mouth long enough to eat anything, not to mention John (John Dorney) and his incessant fidgeting, it all combines to create something that’s so exquisitely horrifying, you can’t look away.
The set, designed by Simon Kenny, is a faithful homage to the time period. It’s got the garish wallpaper, the leather sofas and the deep pile carpet. There are shelves full of ugly ornaments, and a wooden elephant on the mantelpiece (this particularly caught my eye because my grandparents had a set exactly like it). The coffee table’s piled high with patterned crockery and the inevitable arrangement of pineapple on cocktail sticks. The fact that, at the time, this room would have been viewed as fashionable and in good taste, only heightens the comedy.
Absent Friends is a complex examination of relationships, social expectations, and what it truly means to be happy. Although it’s set in the 70s, the themes covered by the play are just as relevant today, even for those of us who weren’t even born when it was written. This new production places Ayckbourn’s witty and finely crafted script in the hands of a strong cast with great chemistry, and the result is an entertaining, if slightly toe-curling, evening.
Review by Liz Dyer
Summer 1974. A well-intentioned tea party descends into chaos.
Wealthy, unfulfilled housewife Diana arranges a gathering of old friends to cheer up bereaved Colin, whose fiancée drowned a few months earlier. Paul, her bullying, self-absorbed husband, has recently had a brief affair with Evelyn, the glamorous, young wife of his friend and incompetent business associate, John. The get-together is completed by long-suffering Marge, who has left her hypochondriac spouse ailing at home. Preparations for the party commence, sparking tensions and opening old wounds. As lingering resentments and deep-rooted jealousies surface, an unexpectedly cheerful Colin wanders into the mayhem.
Read our interview with Michael Cabot Artistic Director of London Classic Theatre
Tour dates at http://www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk/
Tuesday 16th June 2015