Absent Friends, Harold Pinter, London
The Way of the World, Crucible, Sheffield
The Devil and Mr Punch, Barbican Pit, London

Alan Ayckbourn's drama is painfully good when the knot of comedy and tragedy is pulled tight

A large clock projects on to the front curtain at the start of Absent Friends, its second hand spinning.

Alan Ayckbourn's domestic drama from 1974 zooms in on a reunion of old acquaintances which – in this West End revival, by director Jeremy Herrin – proves touchingly mournful as well as comic.

Several years have passed since businessman Paul (Steffan Rhodri) and his wife Diana (Katherine Parkinson) last saw Colin. Now, hearing his fiancée has died, Diana has invited him over – with other ex-associates – supposedly to cheer him up. However, Diana has become a neurotically unhappy housewife. Paul has turned ratty and, she suspects, adulterous. His sidekick John (David Armand) – forced to accept an open marriage – is twitchy while his spouse, Kara Tointon's Evelyn, is monosyllabic, seemingly sick and tired of both husband and baby.

When Reece Shearsmith's Colin beetles in – a little nerd in big specs – no one wants to deal with his bereavement. The surprise is that Colin is irritatingly upbeat, weighing in with Pollyanna-ish surmises about the others' marriages, making them realise the lack of love in their own lives.

Herrin's production, with spot-on Seventies detailing, reveals Ayckbourn's sharp eye for sexual politics. Granted, this isn't going to be the hottest Valentine's Day ticket, but it's painfully good when the knot of comedy and tragedy is pulled tight. Parkinson is superb, on the verge of a howling breakdown and still politely smiling. There could be more rivalrous tensions. Tointon is startlingly moving at the end. Rocking her pram with a touch of Chekhov's Three Sisters, she softly sings "When will I see you again?" – the Three Degrees as a farewell to love, or a lyrical new start.

In William Congreve's Restoration comedy The Way of the World, staged by Lyndsey Turner, you must keep on your toes to follow the shenanigans of London society – a welter of wrangling adulterers and dandyish suitors, buzzing round a widow (Deborah Findlay's Lady Wishfort) and her rich ward (Sinéad Matthews's Millamant).

Turner and her designer Naomi Wilkinson don't exactly help you get a handle on the proceedings, adding a prologue where the heart-throb Mirabell (Ben Lloyd-Hughes, inset right) is seen making a pop video, lip-synching about his playboy lifestyle.

Though the text is mainly preserved, everyone's rigged out in catwalk absurdities – half-1700, half-now – as we jump from film studio to fashion boutique to Wishfort's nouveau- riche mansion. Matthews totters around looking like Kylie Minogue in a lace-up bodice. Samuel Barnett's snide Witwoud is super-camp in knee-length shorts and flounced blouse.

The comedy warm ups slowly. Lloyd-Hughes looks self-conscious, unsure whether to act rakish or smitten. Others characters are out of focus too. Findlay's flustered Lady Wishfort, however, livens things up, glugging cherry brandy and breaking into Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory" when she thinks she's getting hitched. Matthews finally hits her stride too, discovering a teasing charm as well as proto-feminism in Millamant's speech about dwindling into a wife.

Taking your seat for The Devil and Mister Punch, you might think you've vaulted back into the Restoration era. This picaresque puppet and mask play, co-devised by designer-director Julian Crouch for Improbable, coincides with the 350th anniversary of the first recorded description of a pint-sized Mr Punch.

Crouch's staging (certainly not for tots) is visually stunning, macabre and insanely dreamlike. His booth is a panelled closet where numerous hatches flip open. Hands snake out, jingling bells. Punch is a commedia-influenced glove puppet with a ruff and ghoulish rictus. In a gilded picture frame he dances against a blue sky, Crouch's references condensing many centuries, from the Middle Ages to Magritte.

After Punch has cudgelled his squawking baby and missus and a crocodile, there's a bonkers cop chase. Basilicas-on-sticks whizz by as Punch gallops on a steed, switches to a drophead motor then doggy-paddles past fish. Eventually, his time is up and he's bundled down to hell, where he strikes a job-share deal with the Devil.

Alas, a brilliant designer lacking directorial rigour, Crouch has failed to excise the more feeble gags or construct a lucid storyline for them from all this fantastical freewheeling.

'Absent Friends' (0844 871 7622) to 14 Apr; 'The Way of the World' (0114-249 6000) to 25 Feb; 'The Devil and Mister Punch' (0844 482 8008) to 25 Feb

Next Week:

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