The awkward conversation is something most British avoid at all costs. We’re not good at talking about our emotions and worse still at talking about other people’s feelings.
So Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy of embarrassment, Absent Friends, hits a raw nerve with all of us.
London Classic Theatre is celebrating 15 years in the business with a national tour of the 1974 hit and it ends its brief run at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre tonight.
This delightful production provides laughs from the opening scene when we meet the dumpy Diana, flitting around, anxiously preparing a tea party for former friend, Colin, whose fiancée, Carol, has died.
She has summoned his old circle of friends so they can provide the bereaved Colin with emotional support. But who is there to give Di a shoulder to cry on?
As usual with Ayckbourn you scratch the glossy veneer of happiness to reveal a dark undercoat of sorrow and raw anger.
Di, crippled by low self-esteem, thinks businessman husband Paul is having an affair with the taciturn (though occasionally rising to monosyllabic, Evelyn). He, in return, can’t seem to help himself but be dismissive, callous and cruel towards his wife.
Evelyn has nothing but contempt for her husband John – though we can’t be sure as she gives so little away.
Her cuckolded husband, a cat food salesman, forgives Paul anything in a bid to keep his custom, while Marge has to cope with her (never seen) overweight shirker of a husband, Gordon.
So the gang wait in Di and Paul’s luxury des res (in somewhere like Chigwell judging from the accents – very Abigail’s Party), sniping at each other and nervous about meeting Colin again and facing the elephant in the room.
It turns out Colin is not only one of those individuals who delights in talking about the dear departed (aided by photo albums) but he dispenses his own brand of cod psychology to help the others overcome their relationship issues.
Ashley Cook’s optimistic Colin looks almost euphoric throughout this cripplingly uncomfortable tea party and it wrong foots everyone.
There are some great characters in Absent Friends. Director Michael Cabot’s wise decision to keep the story firmly rooted in the era that taste forgot allows us to enjoy John’s handlebar moustache and loud shirt/tie combo, Evelyn’s “Purdey” pageboy and Marge’s erratic taste in orange platform shoes.
And don’t get me started on the decor. I think I may have owned that Denby tea set at some point (and definitely the odd piece of G-Plan).
John Dorney, as John, is hysterical. The man is hyper. An overdose of caffeine perhaps? He doesn’t sit but fidgets and wriggles like a man with pepper in his pants. John dances around the set, alighting for a brief nanosecond before jumping back up.
He is phobic about the “Death” word and twitches, as though stung, every time Colin mentions it.
Kathryn Ritchie draws out every infrequent word uttered by Evelyn, making her comical by default, while the sing-song voice of Alice Selwyn’s Marge (looking very much like Sally Hawkins,) reminded me of Abigail’s Party Beverly.
She’s unnaturally optimistic, a born mediator, but obsessed with kitchen towel. Marge is a typical Ayckbourn strong woman (while the men are, as usual, universally weak).
But her place is still as carer to her heavyweight husband, who she calls Jum-Jum and seems incapable of getting through a day without suffering one domestic crisis or another.
Catherine Harvey and Kevin Drury, as Di and Paul, do their best with a pair disillusioned and disappointed with both marriage and life.
But it’s Colin’s little bright-eyed face which gives us the most joy. I don’t know what he was on but it should be prescribed for free on the NHS.
London Classic Theatre has produced a little gem but, as good as this company is, (and previous recent, excellent, productions include Entertaining Mr Sloane and Equus), it is seriously over-reaching itself by thinking it could attract even reasonable-sized audiences to the vast 1,200 seat Aylesbury theatre.
On Friday night, when I saw Absent Friends, the house was deserted. There were probably no more than 200 people in to enjoy this well-produced comedy.
There are no big names to put bums on seats and they really are needed for this type of prestige theatre.
Absent Friends continues to tour the UK until July.
2015 Tour dates
May 19-20, Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
May 21-23, Theatre Royal, Winchester
May 26-27, King’s Theatre, Southsea
May 28-30, Connaught Theatre, Worthing
June 1-6, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
June 8-13, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
June 15-20, Richmond Theatre
June 22-24, Lyceum, Crewe
June 25-27, Greenwich Theatre
June 30-July 1, Theatre Royal, Margate
July 2-4, Assembly Halls, Tunbridge Wells
July 6-11, Derby Theatre
July 13-18, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
London Classic Theatre celebrates 15 years in business with a national tour of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends which played for three nights at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre this week. Review.