“The past is a foreign country.” ~ L.P. Hartley.
In 2015, Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends feels very dated – and so it should. It’s one of the greatest arguments for feminism and shows just how far Britain has come from the primitive gender politics of the 1970s. While this may be billed as a comedy, it’s probably better described as a “tragedy of manners” with Ayckbourn’s toxic mix of characters constantly battling to keep up appearances in a two-act exploration of embarrassment. It has more in common with the gawky humour of The Inbetweeners, packed with plenty of cringeworthy moments that had me wincing and laughing (often both at the same time).
Diane and Paul have a lovely home* and a loveless marriage (*lovely by 1970s decor standards – the whole set makes use of every conceivable shade of orange and brown). When they discover that their friend Colin (who they haven’t seen for 3 years) has recently been bereaved after his fiancée drowned, they rally around a few old friends and invite him over for a sympathetic catch up. What begins as a well-meaning get-together, soon descends into an awkward melting pot of gripes and bickering.
Kathryn Ritchie makes for a thoroughly crass and gormless Evelyn, with an accent so caustic that you could use it to strip wallpaper. She barely contains her contempt for her husband, John (John Dorney) who seems to spend the entire play hoppitting about in a one-man pre-cursor to Riverdance (at times, a little distracting from the main action) and sliding off bar stools in his vomit-hued corduroy flares. Neither is particularly inclined towards hiding the fact that their brief marriage has already gone sour.
By contrast, Diana (Catherine Harvey) is cripplingly neurotic and frantically trying to disguise the fact that she and the boorish Paul (Kevin Drury) are a long way from wedded bliss. He treats her with utter disdain, and as little more than a catering manager for his business clients. Alice Selwyn is a cheery-but-vacuous Marge, constantly talking, but with nothing of value to say. Ashley Cook exudes social ineptitude as beta-male Colin, in a performance reminiscent of Michael Palin as Mr Anchovy in the Lion Taming sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Director Michael Cabot stirs up plenty of uncomfortable moments to good comic effect – conversation-killing anecdotes, deafening silences and tiptoeing around sensitive topics are all made fist-gnawingly awful. There is great physical comedy when John is abandoned with Colin and very quickly runs out of things to say to him – he buckles under the pressure of silence and it takes several attempts to extricate himself from the room. But there is also tender pathos as Diana confesses to her desperate unhappiness with life – in spite of financial comfort, she realises it is too late to fulfil any of her own aspirations for a happy marriage (and of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).
While the characterisation does occasionally stray into caricature, the cast very much do justice to Ayckbourn’s writing which ultimately holds the mirror up to the audience, forcing us to examine our own lives and to think about what – and who – we take for granted.
Absent Friends is on tour around the UK until 18th July 2015 visiting Crewe, Greenwich, Margate, Tunbridge Wells, Derby and Cheltenham. For tickets and more information go to http://www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk/index.php/2014/05/absent-friends/