In some ways, there’s no point in commenting on Alan Ayckbourn as a playwright – his position in the pantheon is evidently secured and his body of work is frequently revived and toured around the country. And with such a prolific pen, it is a considerable number of plays that he has now amassed – 75 at the last count. However, I have never really been seduced by him, the only play I’ve really liked was the atypical Snake in the Grass, the majority of his pieces have struck me as somewhat inconsequential and sitcom-like, and further dulled by repetition as evidenced by the smattering of his oeuvre I have witnessed. But I can never resist a ticket being dropped into my hand and the lure of an interesting looking cast meant that I took in Absent Friends at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
One of his earlier works from 1974, Absent Friends sees Ayckbourn train his aim on death and the different ways people deal with it. Colin’s old friends are holding a Saturday afternoon tea party to comfort him after the unfortunate death of his fiancee but as they attempt to step gingerly around the topic, he is more than willing to talk about her, their short time together and show his photo collection to everyone. But what Colin is blithely unaware of is that the perfect lives that he imagines they are all living are a sham and behind the forced smiles over the sandwiches, lies a seething mass of jealousy, anger and frustration that is coming to the boil and it becomes apparent that it is not him whose really in need of tea and comfort.
The moments of awkward comedy are where this Jeremy Herrin-directed production really excels, where time and time again as the party guests try to keep the conversation neutral, they put their foot in it by saying the wrong thing. So easily done and so recognisably human, these are played brilliantly by the cast, predominantly by Katherine Parkinson’s edgy host Diana and Elizabeth Berrington’s Marge whose appalled looks of horror are done perfectly as they accidently reference affairs and deaths and cannot resist offering to share in Colin’s stories and the grief they are expecting from him. And it is this feeling of being on the edge that is sustained well, once the first act has set up and warmed up (it took a while at this preview performance…) barely contained emotions on the verge of exploding.
Steffan Rhodri’s philandering Paul can scarcely tolerate anyone in his house, especially harsh to his wife (Parkinson’s Diana – nice to see her get a bigger role than she had in Season’s Greetings) and his nervy salesman friend John, a jittery turn from David Armand, who can’t stop trying to push his wares. Kara Tointon delivers a highly amusing impact as the surly Evelyn, possessed of just a handful of lines – most of them ‘no’ – yet speaking volumes with a curled lip, piercing stare or flick of a fabulous hairdo and though she is John’s wife, it is her connection with Paul that is causing a certain amount of froideur in the house. And at the centre of it all is Reece Shearsmith’s chirpy Colin, an old friend who has pretty much fallen out of the loop and so his cheery optimism and determination to find the good in everything fails to see past the veneer of civility on his friends’ faces and ends up exposes the ugliness of feeling all around.
Tom Scutt’s set and costume design is minutely observed, the 70s period detail carefully attained across the board, and the performances were generally commendable. So why didn’t it grab me? For me, it is the uncertainty of tone – we seem firmly in tragicomic territory, with the emphasis on the comedy coming from the excruciatingly awkward social unease which hit the mark intermittently for me. But as things get darker, the play hits on an emotional reserve which made me sit up and really engage with the plight of one of the characters. The way that was then casually tossed away with a bizarre diversion into the truly absurd completely shook me out of the moment, crucially failed to make me laugh and consequently left me disgruntled for the rest of the evening.
It’s a matter of taste in the end, and once again I find Ayckbourn not to mine. I could just leave it and say each to their own, and if you end up enjoying this production of Absent Friends (as did large swathes of the audience) then I am genuinely happy for you, but I’m never one to let it lie truth be told. I don’t like the way the men are drawn here, suburban archetypes rather than realistic characters; the depiction of misery and regret ends up lacking bite because of the treatment and so the comedic highs are never really balanced by a darker side. But more significantly for me, it all just feels unexceptional as a piece of writing, it illuminated little for me and didn’t entertain me sufficiently to allow me to forgive that.