Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Theatre review: Absent Friends

Alan Ayckbourn's latest play is due to arrive in That London soon but first there's another revival from his huge back catalogue. We're back in the '70s for Absent Friends, one of his bleak comedies of awkwardness and middle-class disappointment. Designer Tom Scutt doesn't get to do one of his more expressionistic sets this time but he's just as adept at bringing the decade taste forgot back to life in all its orange, brown and queasy green glory. The well-off middle-class living room is dominated by a garish wall clock as well as lots of other nice touches - the crocodile seemed particularly true to the time period to me. This is the home of Di (Katherine Parkinson) and Paul (Steffan Rhodri,) on a Saturday afternoon when they're about to have a tea party. Di's holding it to cheer up Colin (Reece Shearsmith,) a friend they haven't seen for a while, whose fiancée recently drowned. But Paul has been having an affair with the monosyllabic Evelyn (Kara Tointon,) wife of jittery John (David Armand.) And with Marge (Elizabeth Berrington) fretting over her accident-prone husband who keeps phoning her from his sick-bed, Colin might be the one in least need of cheering up.

The comedy isn't uproarious but it's sharp and the cast work well together to show us this disparate group of clearly-defined characters who've ended up in each others' lives largely by default (though why the stone-cold Evelyn ever ended up married to loser John is a mystery.) Among the strong ensemble Parkinson is good as the smiling hostess permanently on the verge of hysteria, Armand often quietly steals the scene as his character, with his phobia of talking about death (an unfortunate condition given why they're there,) starts to get the shakes, while Berrington's Marge constantly putting her foot in it is also funny. Having been outside of the group for a while Colin's proclamations about his friends' personalities are comically wide of the mark while containing the odd accidental grain of truth. The rather bleak conclusion has to be that Colin's the happiest in his relationship, as his fiancée died before things could sour between them and he remembers her as perfect. Ayckbourn's wry observations remain apt and as that clocks ticks off the minutes in real time Jeremy Herrin's production captures the uncomfortable comedy.

Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn is booking until the 14th of April at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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