THEATRE / With sunny side up: Paul Taylor on Absent Friends at the Lyric Hammersmith

In Alan Ayckbourn's plays, it is the well-intentioned characters who tend to wreak the most havoc, the out-and-out bastards being very much the silver medalists in any emotional damage contest. In Joking Apart, for instance, it is the endless beneficence and hospitality of Richard and Anthea, the sensitive, effortlessly successful couple at the play's centre, that help drive their various visitors to despair, impotence and, in one case, a heart attack. And in Absent Friends, revived now by Peter James at the Lyric, Hammersmith, it is the kindly Colin - guest of honour at the tea-party organised by his old friends to console him for the death of his fiancee - who is the little ray of sunshine with the heart-of-darkness effect.

Ayckbourn often likes to overturn what one might normally expect in a character, as with the former bank clerk, Douglas, in Man of the Moment. To the frustration of the television producer who has arranged the play's encounter, this sweet-natured man shows no trace of bitterness or envy towards the rich, medallioned yob who, years before, had held up a bank and blasted away the beauty and the nervous stability of the woman Douglas went on to marry.

Likewise, in Absent Friends, Colin behaves in a manner that is the reverse of what his friends anticipate. Far from being a grief- stricken case, who needs kid-glove treatment, he is serenely happy with his sentimental memories of the drowned girl and only too ready to talk about her. It is the unhappiness of their relationships that gets flushed out by his clumsy romanticism.

You would hide under a moving train to avoid contact with Gary Bond's transcendentally ghastly Colin. If you can imagine what Cliff Richard might have been like had he spent his life in a suburban office job, and then add to that a dash of Bruce Forsyth's body language with contestants on The Generation Game, you will get some inkling of Colin's effect on the tea party. Bounding off to get his albums, Bond proceeds to hand round photos of the dead girl with a beaming, undismayed pride; he could be showing them snaps of a new loft-conversion, for all the pain in his manner. Bond brings up splendidly the character's appalling myopia to the mayhem he is causing; he's so busy radiating cheerfulness, it's as though he were blinded by his own ultra-brightness.

James's production contains other good performances and some deft touches, but it adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Ayckbourn has written that it is a work 'for a small, intimate theatre where one can hear the actors breathing and the silences ticking away'. You feel the force of that wisdom when watching it on the main stage of the Lyric, Hammersmith, where the actors sometimes have to project in ways that inevitably rob the piece of its claustrophobic, low-key mood.

None the less, Susie Blake is very funny and moving as the cheated-on, desperate Diana. From the beginning, she shows you, with her shrewdly darting eyes, quick swallowings of emotion and involuntary necklace- worrying, that this is a woman seated on a miniature volcano of pent-up misery. As Evelyn, the permanently pissed-off, too- bored-to-speak girl who has had sex with Di's husband, there is another striking performance from Jane Slavin, who can make the word 'fantastic' sound like an invitation to drop dead. Very good at conveying the comedy of social embarrassment, the production could afford to steer nearer to tragedy at the end.

Absent Friends continues until 29 August at the Lyric Theatre, King Sreet, Hammersmith (Box office: 071-741 0824).

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