London Classic Theatre’s new season includes a tour of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends, coming to Aylesbury Waterside Theatre next month.
Absent Friends tells the story of a well-intentioned tea party that descends into chaos in Summer 1974.
Wealthy, unfulfilled housewife Diana arranges a gathering of old friends to cheer up bereaved Colin, whose fiancée drowned two months earlier.
Paul, her bullying, self-absorbed husband, has recently had a dalliance with Evelyn, the glamorous wife of his friend and incompetent business associate, John.
The party is completed by long-suffering Marge, who has left Gordon, her hypochondriac spouse, ailing at home.
Preparations for the party spark tensions and open old wounds. As lingering resentments and deep-rooted jealousies surface, an unexpectedly cheerful Colin strolls into the mayhem.
Acerbic and painfully funny, Absent Friends explores friendship, marriage and what it ultimately means to be happy. In one of his finest plays, Ayckbourn’s craftsmanship and acute social observation have never been sharper or more biting.
LCT artistic director Michael Cabot directs Ashley Cook, John Dorney, Kevin Drury, Catherine Harvey, Kathryn Ritchie and Alice Selwyn.
Cabot (MC) talked to Alan Ayckbourn (AA) about his play.
MC: Absent Friends premièred at the Library Theatre, Scarborough in June 1974. What are your memories of that production and how the first audiences responded to the play?
AA: I remember being rather nervous at the time. It was quite a departure for me at that stage of my career. It was very low key compared with earlier plays like Absurd Person Singular, How the Other Half Loves or The Norman Conquests.
One of its central themes also concerns death of a loved one, possibly not the most obvious topic for a comedy at that time.
As I watched the audience troop up the stairs for the first performance at the Scarborough Library Theatre, I noted that a high proportion of them were elderly. What were they going to make of it?
In the event it was a huge success. No one was more surprised than the author.
MC: You were in your mid-thirties when you wrote Absent Friends and the characters in the play are at a similar stage in their lives. Through such a long and distinguished career, how much do you feel your age and life experience at the time of writing has impacted on your work?
AA: In general, as many have observed, the work has gradually grown darker in tone. I put this down less to an increasing pessimism about human nature brought about by old age (though there’s certainly a bit of that) but more to the plays favouring exploration of character over plot. The deeper you dig, the darker it tends to get.
MC: It has been said that all the characters, perhaps with the exception of Colin, are fairly unpleasant. As a playwright, do you like your characters, even those who seem to have no redeeming features?
AA: I don’t agree at all. They all have their faults as people. There are victims in the women, Diana and Marge and even in Evelyn, who has to need our sympathy married as she is to an amiable wally like John.
I concede Paul isn’t the most pleasant of men and Colin is a nightmare. Imagine spending an afternoon alone with him! But four out of six isn’t bad.
Besides, I love all my characters, even the awful ones. If you don’t start out writing them with affection, they’ll never hope to breathe off the page. It’s like how an actor approaches a new character, however awful they appear, you need to find something to love in them.
MC: As a very early example of ‘comedy of embarrassment’, made so popular in recent years with The Office and its imitators, Absent Friends was very much ahead of its time. Were you aware that you were breaking new ground?
AA: No, just looking around for a new approach, fresh characters, same as I have always done. My nightmare is always a horror of repeating myself. But after 79 plays, my options are narrowing!
MC: In terms of the characters, what do think lies ahead for them beyond the end of the play? Do you think any of the marriages would survive?
AA: I think most of them will but whether they should is a different matter. Marge will stay with Gordon certainly. Di will stick with Paul for (so she will claim) the sake of the children. Evelyn might well leave John and take the baby with her but then she’s another generation. Only Colin had the perfect partnership, poor bloke.
Absent Friends runs from May 14-16.
2015 tour dates
April 28- May 2, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne
May 5-9, Blackpool Grand
May 11-13, Wyvern Theatre, Swindon
May 14-16, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
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 2-6, 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 7-11, Derby Theatre
July 13-18, Cheltenham Everyman.