Review: Absent Friends, Harold Pinter Theatre

L-R Katherine Parkinson (Diana) Reece Shearsmith (Colin) and Elizabeth Berrington (Marge). Photo by Simon Annand

I have never been a fan of Alan Ayckbourn for there is only so much of suburban middle class marital misery I can bear at any given time. Also I don’t think I have quite recovered from the last Ayckbourn play I saw – Bedroom Farce – which transferred from Chichester to the West End. This time, two compelling reasons made me set aside my Ayckbourn aversions to watch this production: director Jeremy Herrin and the fact that tickets were offered at good discounted prices.

Set in a smart 1970’s suburban home over the course of a Saturday afternoon, it is a minute by minute account of a reunion tea party that Diana has organised for Colin, a long absent friend who has moved to another town and whose fiance died in a drowning incident. Before Colin arrives, we find out that Diana’s husband and their friends don’t remember Colin that well and neither do they like him that much. And none of them have met Colin’s fiance. But Diana presses on them that it is their obligation to show support to their friend.

While tensions simmer and reach boiling points between the characters before Colin’s arrival, his cheerful presence unhinges them all and leaves them shattered by the time he leaves. Colin states that he is not bitter about losing his much loved fiance and he proceeds to compliment his friends on their marriages, careers and lives. Knowing what we know about the characters, we feel for them when they grimace through Colin’s praises. Colin also reminisces about shared memories and experiences which the other characters can only remember dimly, if at all, and this creates some neat black comedy. It dawns on them that there is a gulf between Colin’s perception of their happiness and their tormented real lives. The ending of the play offers no hope and it is only right that the characters feel as shattered as they do.

What this production has successfully done is to show the depth of material in a play that is ostensibly about middle class pains. Gender politics, emotional and sexual repression, the inability to tackle difficult subjects, the inability to be honest to each other, marriage, death, faded dreams and the test of true friendships are packed into this 2 hour production. Awkward silences, pauses, facial expressions and twitchy body movements are forceful in this play, articulating more than the words delivered on stage.

One of my problems with Ayckbourn’s plays is that too often the farce and the funny lines provoke too much ‘shallow’ laughter from the audience and I am always left to wonder if the underlying despair gets lost in the hilarity. The same happens in this play especially when Diana collapses into a nervous breakdown towards the end where the farcical illustration of this scene does little to refocus our attention on the gravity of Diana’s sorrow.

The attention paid to the details for the set design, the make up and the wardrobe is exquisite and pays off well. There is all round good acting from the cast members but Elizabeth Berrington, who plays Diana’s friend Marge, stands out for bringing together the sum of the play’s parts into her character. Katherine Parkinson’s brittle Diana deserves a special mention too. While this is not a reflection on Kara Tointon, I was a little disappointed to see her cast as the younger woman and wife in this play, Evelyn. Kara gives us a convincing Evelyn – bored, cynical and stroppy – but it’s not a part with many spoken lines. She was superb in Pygmalion last year and I suppose I had expectations to see her tackle weightier theatrical roles.

Personally, this well-thought out production has challenged my views about Ayckbourn’s plays. I don’t know if I will ever become a big fan of his works but this is a start.

Until 14 April 2012.
Written by Alan Ayckbourn.
Directed by Jeremy Herrin.
Performance time is 2 hours and 10 mins with one interval.


About manipillai

Oh, just a few of my thoughts on theatre.
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2 Responses to Review: Absent Friends, Harold Pinter Theatre

  1. Thanks for this – I saw the play this afternoon and unlike yourself enjoyed ‘Bedroom Farce’ and am a moderately enthusiatic Ayckbourn fan. I was impressed by the two main women in this – familiar from TV – but Evelyn seemed colourless and so did Diana’s husband, John, after his first appearance carrying a squash racket. In fact, I was pleased to see Colin because he promised to animate the piece. The pauses in the first half seemed endless and I was hoping for a stronger ending. I think this must be Ayckbourn’s darkest play. The single set and strict chronology did nothing to alleviate the monotony.

    • manipillai says:

      I have not seen all of Ayckbourn’s plays but am inclined to agree with you that this must be his bleakest play. My only criticism of the play (and production) is that the despair was presented as a farce which reduced the gravity of the play significantly. And yes, I agree that Colin’s presence did help to accelerate the pace and events.

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