In Alan Ayckbourn’s ABSENT FRIENDS (1974) big hearted and good natured soul Di has organised an afternoon tea for Colin, one of her husband Paul’s best friends.
She has been worried about how Colin has been going after his recent tragic loss of his newly wed wife Carol in a drowning accident. With this in mind Di invites two of Colin’s best friends, John, along with his wife, Evelyn, and Gordon, along with his wife Marge, to join her husband and her in their family home, and hopefully this will help to cheer him up…
Oh…if only Di had a crystal ball! The afternoon soiree turns out very differently to how Di had hoped. Her husband Paul has come home from golf in a grumpy, cantankerous mood. He is rude, belligerent, even abusive to her.
Gordon doesn’t even turn up, his wife Marge attends and says her husband couldn’t make it. He isn’t feeling well. An absent friend as per the play’s titlle.
John is edgy and can’t stand still, his wife Evelyn is droll and bitchy. To top it all off, Diana has heard rumours that Paul and Evelyn have been having an affair.
Basically, everyone is in a bit of a funk. Enter Colin…who they are supposed to be cheering up. An interesting concept!
Colin surprises them all by being in a good mood. He tells everyone that he has decided to take a positive approach to what has happened to him.
He describes how blessed he feels that he got to know such a beautiful woman as Carol, even if only for such a short time. And then talking to Paul he drops a clanger:-
“I only regret Paul that my relationship with Carol was never able to develop like your relationship with Di has.”
Colin’s naive, rose coloured remark is in sharp contrast to what is actually happening in the room. Which brings to me what I think Ayckbourn is saying with ABSENT FRIENDS:- Let’s forget all the mushy, idyllic stuff about relationships…they are often work, and perfect partners only exist in heaven!
Though the play has some hearty laughs, at its heart this is a serious and, at times, confronting work.
ABSENT FRIENDS is very much a play of its time- the seventies. It hones in on the troubled, uneven nature of male/female relationships at the time. All three men are the patriarchs, the breadwinners of the family, and controlling. The women are housewives, subservient to their men and feeling malcontent.
Mark Kilmurry’s production conveys these tensions well. He wins fine performances from the cast. Michelle Doake makes a strong impression as the highly strung hostess, Di, as does Queenie Van De Zandt as Marge, displaying great comedienne skills.
Talented young actress Jessica Sullivan is good to watch as the very droll Evelyn. Nothing…I mean nothing…enthuses Evelyn.
Darren Gilshenan, in his debut performance for the Ensemble theatre, delivers a strong performance as the showy, outspoken and superior minded Colin.
Richard Sydenham is very credible as the crabby and unpleasant Paul.
The always reliable Brian Meegan, a regular performer at the Ensemble, gives another well realised performance as the twitchy, ill at ease John.
Anna Gardiner’s design work, both in regards to set and costume design, was clear and well realised.
Alan Ayckbourn is one of this Company’s most regularly performed playwrights. This current production sits well amongst their ongoing collection of his work, and is well worth a visit. ABSENT FRIENDS is playing the Ensemble Theatre until Saturday 24th January, 2015.