In 1974, when Alan Ayckbourn first presented the play Absent Friends, no one had heard of ‘cringe comedy’ and the likes of Alan Partridge and The Office were many years off. Once again Britain’s most prolific playwright was way ahead of his time and with this touring production by London Classic Theatre you’ll cringe as much as you’ll laugh. But then that’s the whole point.
Absent Friends is set in real time in the most naturalistic of settings, a socially awkward tea party in the living room of, what the programme describes as, ‘Diana and Paul’s modern executive-style house’. Oh and what a house! The set is beautifully crafted and dressed to transport you right back to the 1970’s, with leather seating, plush fitted carpets and those back lit display cabinets housing china, glassware and one of those chequered wooden fruit bowls I know we had when I was a child. Diana and Paul have money, taste and status and it shows.
Ashley Cook plays the recently bereaved Colin, who Diana has asked to tea and has no awareness of the social and marital tensions in the room when he arrives. His psychoanalysis of each of the characters is a comic high spot. Kevin Drury makes a menacing Paul, whose barely concealed chauvinism and contempt for his wife simmers nicely throughout. His wife Diana, beautifully played by Catherine Harvey is funny and tragic in equal measure.
Ironically the most caring, practical and motherly character Marge, played with glorious vocal and facial expression by Alice Selwyn, is the only woman in the play who isn’t actually a Mum. She fusses and frets on the phone to her poorly husband Gordon, who we never meet but feel we know so much about.
Kathryn Ritchie as the shrill and non-communicative Evelyn is a strong contrast to John Dorney as the restless John, who I couldn’t take my eyes off throughout. John is a character who can’t sit still. His inability to negotiate both the low seated leather footstool and the tall standing bar stools was hilarious. Giving us a character like John shows the genius of Ayckbourn to add comic business and movement in a lounge setting that could potentially be very static. Director Michael Cabot doesn’t fall into that trap of leaving everyone seated for too long and there is a good flow to the piece. He’s not afraid to use awkward silences that occur in real life to good effect to create what Ayckbourn himself called the ‘comedy of embarrassment’.
Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn by London Classic Theatre runs until Saturday 6th June at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. See www.theatreroyal.org.