Sir Alan Ayckbourn's 1974 play 'Absent Friends' has more in the title than you might initially think. It is not just about friends who are missing in the physical sense because it also encompasses those who are missing emotionally, even if they are physically present as it were. It is also not so much a comedy as a drama – and one that leaves you feeling rather sad at that.
In may ways, 'Absent friends' feels rather dated, and not just because of the 70s setting. The characters seem to have just popped out of some kind of middle-class time machine. And that is apt, because time is an important element in this play. What we, the audience, experience is the 'real time' of the play and the situation - the same time as the characters experience in the play. To reinforce the fact, there's a huge clock at the front of the stage before the show starts, and during the interval, and it's smaller sibling hangs solemnly on the wall of the lounge where all the action takes place.
According to Alan Ayckbourn, the play is based on an actual event in which he was involved. When some friends discover that Colin, a former friend they haven't seen for 3 years or so, has suffered a sudden bereavement, they invite him round for tea one Saturday afternoon. Obviously, this sets-up a difficult situation, because no-one wants to be first to mention the taboo subject of 'death' lest Colin, the bereaved, should be upset by being reminded about his fiancé's untimely death, which was caused by drowning.
When we first join the tea party, only hostess Diana (Katherine Parkinson) and Kara Tointon's Evelyn are already awaiting the event. There's considerable tension between these two, though the reasons for it are, at first, unclear. Evelyn hardly speaks at all even though she has brought her baby along with her which one would think would spark conversation. But Evelyn barely says much beyond 'Yes' and 'No' for most of the play, and when her husband John arrives, he says she is a 'strong, silent woman' for whom 'misery is her natural state' - a remark which indicates that their relationship, like others among the circle of friends, is not exactly idyllic. And we soon learn that Evelyn has been having a brief affair with Diana's squash-playing husband, Paul, though Evelyn says he is 'horrible' and that she disliked having sex with him.
When Reece Sheersmith's Colin arrives, he is hardly in a state of deep mourning or despair about his fiancé's demise. In fact he is about as chipper as you could be, if you worked in a bank that is, as Colin does. In fact Colin is almost too cheerful and chirpy, making one wonder if Carol was ever actually killed, or had ever been a part of Colin's life. Moreover, it's the others in the group who find themselves declining into depressive misery, especially Di who sees her marriage at an end. In a sense, Colin's misfortune sparks conflict among those who ostensibly wanted to cheer him up. And that is a neat and productive device.
There's plenty of carefully-crafted humour which exploits the situation without taking it to excessive lengths or milking it totally dry. For example, when Marge is asked if she wants milk in her tea she says 'don't drown it', a remark which slips out before she realises the connection with Colin's fiancé.
Though 'Absent Friends' is funny at times and based on an interesting idea, I found it impossible to really empathise with the characters because all of them (except Colin) seem to have produced, or assisted in engineering their own misery. By the end of the play I was also feeling quite miserable and depressed, because there is no resolution or anything to feel optimistic about.
"Jeremy Herrin is bang on the money with his revival."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This is not Ayckbourn in trouserless ha-ha farce mode. It is thoughtful, melancholy, in places intentionally slow, the humour restrained."
Quentin Letts for Daily Mail
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"Very funny and strongly acted production."
Paul Taylor for The Independent