Snobs and high brows may dismiss Ayckbourn as a mere lightweight, light entertainer of suburbia an ache bore, you might say, but for me, he is England’s Chekhov as well as being our most prolific – he’s written 89 plays and still going – and most undervalued and scandalously under estimated contemporary dramatists.
But in a week that has seen the death of Martin Amis, another victim of England’s penchant for cutting down tall poppies, that shouldn’t surprise us. But as Amis so wittily put it the real action starts with the obituaries. Well, I want to pay homage to Ayckbourn’s achievement whilst he’s still alive. In 1992 reading for an MA in Modern English Literature at Birkbeck College – that life-changing college for adults who need to work by day and study in the evenings – my tutor Dr Peter Mudford suggested that I write my MA thesis on Alan Ayckbourn. The title being ‘’Stage Craft and Moral Vision in the Plays of Alan Ayckbourn”. My obsession at the time was trying to come to terms with Englishness and so I reasoned that the work of Ayckbourn would provide a fascinating vantage point from which to look at the English. Especially of course the English in suburbia. Thus began a lifelong fascination with the plays of Alan Ayckbourn. I was fortunate to meet him at his theatre in Scarborough (being a well-rounded writer his theatre is in the round) and he was very generous with both his time and archive. He statues of Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin on his desk. Needless to say I haven’t seen all his 89 plays. So last night’s opportunity to see one of his early classics Absent Friends (1974) at my local theatre the OSO was an opportunity not to be missed. By the way, the OSO must be the most picturesque location for an Arts venue in all of London. Right by Barnes Pond it’s a uniquely calm and sublime setting.
Absent Friends is a confluence of streams that go to make up an Ayckbourn play. Part comedy of manners, part suburban sitcom, part door-slamming farce (the stage business is as funny as anything in Noises Off ) but above all a tragic-comic melange that only Ayckbourn, outside of Chekhov, can manufacture. It starts off as an, if you like, version of The Good Life – and Polly Smith’s suburban housewife Diana is hereabouts as close as they come to Penelope Keith’s sharp-tongued Margo Leadbetter – and then descends into the cringe-making social nightmare that is Abigail’s Party before ending up in the Chekhovian tragic-comic world of Uncle Vanya. Its journey through a suburban minefield of the social faux pas, putting ones foot in it – One Foot not just in the Grave but in the soup – saying the wrong thing despite one’s best efforts not to do precisely that, in short, the impossibility of ever getting it right. Friends hereabouts are both Absent and Present. Six are present and two are absent to be precise. With Absent/ Present Friends like these who needs enemies? In Absent Friends the comedy of manners – we are at a tea party for six – becomes a comedy of very bad manners indeed. The central character is Diana – superbly realised by the wonderful Polly Smith – who is hosting the tea party for these six characters who have found their author. Like Margot Leadbetter in The Good Life, Diana seems to embody everything that’s solid and secure about suburban life. Diana has it all. House, husband, children the whole suburban dream. But and it’s a big but – Ayckbourn specialises in the Big But – there’s a problem, or to be precise many problems. And it’s in the farcical tragic-comic unravelling of these human problems – inescapable problems, as it were, of the Human condition – that Absent Friends is so engaging, entertaining and enlightening.
There is one moment of peripeteia, a coup de theatre of astonishing power, a most unexpected big reveal that is the highlight not just of this play but of any post-war British drama. The audience was literally trapped in that Chekhovian border zone between laughing and reflecting. This moment is both hilariously funny but simultaneously tragic. We value Chekhov so highly because he is one of the few dramatists who have managed to successfully present this “double feeling” on stage. But Ayckbourn does it too. And the moment I’m apostrophising in the second act of Absent Friends is right up there with Chekhov. For my money the essence of the human condition is tragi comic and that is why Ayckbourn’s achievement is so important and why Absent Friends matters and why it’s definitely worth taking the trouble to make the journey to Barnes Pond. For then you will be On Golden Pond.
Review by John O’Brien
A classic Alan Ayckbourn tragi-comedy from the 1970s, last revived in the West End ten years ago. Provoking laughter and tears in equal measure, the play explores the innocent destructiveness of the happily well-intentioned. Colin’s friends want to help. He has been absent from their lives for a while, but the death of his fiancée, whom they have never met, has propelled Diana into organising a consolatory tea party. Ayckbourn is the master at laying bare human nature and in Absent Friends he explores the universal and unchanging themes of our embarrassment in the face of death, the despair of lives unfulfilled and marriages that have stalled. Produced & Directed by Claire Evans
23 May 2023 – 27 May 2023