by Alan Ayckbourn.
Tour to 18 July 2016.
Runs 2hr One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 3 June at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds.
Mirth amid misery evoked from this mid-70s Ayckbourn stable.
Unlike several early 1970s Alan Ayckbourn plays, Absent Friends doesn’t have a complex staging strategy. But it’s artfully constructed, Ayckbourn holding-back for some time the reason a group of loosely-associated middle-class couples are meeting former friend Colin.
Sad as are the circumstances, it becomes clear Colin, serene with old photos and happy memories, is a temperamental oasis compared with the infidelities, dependencies and incompatibilities assembled at hospitable Diana’s. Her businessman husband Paul’s contempt for her is part of a bullying manner that turns sour when she takes silent revenge with a jug of cream.
And John’s inability to stop fidgeting matches his failed attempts to smooth-over his wife Evelyn’s taciturn contempt, while Marge, tending her bedridden husband by ’phone, covers life’s bleakness with bright surfaces.
Michael Cabot’s revival for London Classic Theatre’s characteristically extensive tour makes clear the play focuses on the women in the constrictive middle-class respectability of near-terminal (and in 1974, near-terminated) social expectations.
Their coping strategies vary. Kathryn Ritchie’s sullen, pram-wielding Evelyn is angrily harsh-voiced, with barbed retorts, when her gum-chewing taciturnity is invaded. Alice Selwyn’s Marge buys presents for others when she’s bought all the garish clothes she can for herself, while her high-pitched cheer attempts to drown-out any inner voice of discontent.
Wreathed in polite smiles and discontent, Catherine Harvey moves from Diana’s early efforts at cheerfulness towards an incipient breakdown. Only an occasional near-explosion prevents this and later she sits silently, prefiguring Vera’s nervous collapse in Just Between Ourselves, two years later (and, two years before Absent Friends, Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular has a wife spend a whole act in a frustrated suicide attempts).
Her ever-alert reactions and darting eyes show Selwyn’s Marge responding to matters she’s unable to comment on in words. Cabot’s revival captures the play’s comedy and serious weight within a certain expressive range. There’s some imbalance between playing styles among the men, Kevin Drury’s Paul inhabiting a more serious world than John Dorney’s ever-fidgeting John. And, at the centre of attention, Ashley Cook’s simply played Colin, is someone you could cheerfully drown in his blithe complacency amid the anguish around.
Evelyn: Kathryn Ritchie.
Diana: Catherine Harvey.
Marge: Alice Selwyn.
Paul: Kevin Drury.
John: John Dorney.
Colin: Ashley Cook.
Director: Michael Cabot.
Designer/Costume: Simon Kenny.
Lighting: Andy Grange.
Assistant director: Emma Butler.
2-6 Jun 7.30pm Mat Sat 3pm Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds 01284 769505 www.theatreroyal.org
8-13 Jun 7.45pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm Audio-described Sat 2.30pm; Captioned Fri Belgrade Theatre Coventry 024 7655 3055 www.belgrade.co.uk
15-20 Jun 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm Richmond Theatre 0844 871 7651 www.atgtickets.com/richmond-theatre
22-24 Jun 7.30pm Mat Wed 2.30pm <Lyceum Theatre Crewe 01270 368242 www.crewelyceum.co.uk
25-27 Jun 7.30pm Mat Sat 2.30pm Greenwich Theatre 020 8858 7755 www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk
30 Jun-1 Jul Tue 7.30pm; Wed 2.30pm Theatre Royal Margate 01843 292795 www.theatreroyalmargate.com
2-4 Jul 7.30pm Mat Sat 2.30pm Assembly Hall Tunbridge Wells 01892 530613 www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk
7-11 Jul 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm Derby Theatre 01332 593939 www.derbytheatre.co.uk
13-18 Jul 7.45pm Mat Thu & Sat 2pm Everyman Theatre Cheltenham 01242 572573 www.everymantheatre.org.uk