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ABSENT FRIENDS – Richmond Theatre, London.

Absent FriendsIt’s 1974, and old friends are meeting under sad circumstances for a tea party on a Saturday afternoon. Colin, a previously absent friend, has lost his girlfriend in a drowning accident, and he has been invited round to Diana and Paul’s to demonstrate their continuing solidarity.

This being an Alan Ayckbourn play, things are not quite as cosy as that might imply.

Paul has been having a brief – and unsatisfactory – affair with his friend John’s wife Evelyn, despite their son having been born only four months before. Paul, who has become a successful businessman, is scathing about fidgety salesman John. He has turned into an overbearing bully in a mid-life crisis, in which squash features strongly and his children (despatched to boarding school) not at all. His wife Di just wants some affection, with precious little in sight. Marge relies on shopping as therapy, while her hypochondriac husband lies in bed getting fatter and bemoaning his lost career as a cricketer.

Into all these relationships comes Colin, an innocent savant, who despite losing his girlfriend has, with difficulty adjusted to his loss and is content to see the best in everyone and everything.

This is early Ayckbourn, and it feels more than a little like a play from a bygone era. Not only due to the geometric wallpaper or the Danish leather sofas, the slate-faced chimney breasts or the bell-bottom trousers, but the insular outlook, and indeed the fact that the entire play takes place in one room. There is none of the playfulness about the location that figures so strongly in some of Ayckbourn’s later efforts.

This play is often bracketed with Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, which it pre-dates by three years. There is the same sense that personal volcanoes are simmering under the restraints of aspiration and social acceptability. Both aim for a kind of mythical relevance despite being rooted in a sitting room. They are, in the end, rooted in a generation that today’s audience might find slightly strange.

Ayckbourn’s script is a little laboured at the outset, when characters are establishing themselves.

Evelyn (Kathryn Ritchie) adopts an accent that is so exaggerated as to be quite difficult to follow, presumably in search of a comedy effect that is not quite successful. Marge (Alice Selwyn) takes her (better, more sympathetic) lines well, but the whole thing is a bit wobbly until the arrival of Colin (Ashley Cook) whose timing is excellent and whose character serves to establish a subtle but formidable touchstone against which the frenetic lives  of the others are put into sharp focus.

Thereafter, the process is one of revelation. Of how relationships became established, of the optimism of youth that Colin alone among this group has been able to maintain. Of how much has been forgotten (the so-called ‘friends’ deny the fact that they were ever close), and of how absent these friends are from each other.

This then is drawing-room comedy with a sharper edge than might have been the case in an earlier era, but the edge seems a little blunter for the passage of time. There are better and more imaginative plays than Absent Friends in the Ayckbourn repertoire, but this, even if a little of a period piece, remains interesting and entertaining.

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Reviewed 15/06/2015

By Michael Spring

15th  – 20th June 2015
Richmond Theatre, Richmond TW9 1QJ. 

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