A recurring figure in the world of Alan Ayckbourn is the utterly well-meaning interloper who, by his cheerful immunity from the woes of the others, wreaks emotional havoc amongst the depressed, fragile people on whom he descends.
Revived now in Jeremy Herrin's very funny and strongly acted production, Absent Friends (1974) is built round a visit from just such an individual. Nerdy Colin, whose fiancee recently drowned and who is rather out-of-the-loop, is invited to a would-be cheering tea party by old friends who never met Carol, the deceased and, by repute, practically perfect love of his life. The irony on which the whole tragicomedy turns is that it is the "friends" who are in increasingly desperate need of consolation, not the bereaved Colin who comes armed with photograph albums and counts himself lucky to have had fourteen months of this paragon's love. In a manner largely ignored by the piece, it never seems to occur to Colin to mourn what Carol herself irrecoverably lost by her premature demise. By that token, he fits directly into the exceptionless pattern of male insensitivity towards partners that the play presents.
The clothes and decor here (from clunky plaform shoes to radial sun clocks) situate the piece very firmly in the 1970s which is not just the decade that taste forgot but a time when the later so-called "New Man" was not even a gleam in a futurist's eye. The play opens with the bleak hilarity of a sequence in which the main hostess Diana (excellent Katherine Parkinson speaking with a built-in chuckle to the voice that seems be incubating a violent breakdown) rabbits on in a near-monologue about her inadequacies and her husband's infidelities. It's semaphored too loudly in this production that she is trying to bounce an adulterous confession from Kara Tointon's gum-chewing affectless Evelyn who, when not torpidly rocking her baby's pram, has her nose stuck in insultingly patronising women's magazine. Their husbands are respectively a suburban Romeo-cum-naff-executive (Steffan Rhodri) and his employee Jogn (David Armand) whose main charm is a variety of compulsive-obsessive disorders. Wonderful Elizabeth Berrington plays childless Marge, the last of the trio has transferred her maternal affections to a mountainous, permanently invalid and disaster-prone husband who keeps ringing from hiis sick bed.
Full of amusing gaffes that demonstrate our nervousness aboutdeath, the play is weakened by a back story that does not, to my mind, add up and by the steroetypical nature of the characters. But Reece Shearsmith. looking like the love-child of Eric Morecambe and Ronnie Corbett, is in glorious form as Colin, all bouncy born-again brightness and car-crash concern and beautifully hinting just before his final exit that all is not as well with him as he makes out.
Booking to April 14
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