Watford Palace Theatre
7 October 2008
Absent Friends bring present laughter
Alan Ayckbourn is one of the most prolific and widely performed English language playwrights and this play is a great example of why this is.
Absent Friends takes place in real time and shows a group of friends who get together for tea one Saturday afternoon in order to cheer up one of their number who has just lost his partner. It turns into a tense afternoon as many things are revealed and the cracks in the various relationships begin to show.
Colin is the one whose fiancée accidentally drowned, but instead of being morose, in Ian Targett’s portrayal we see an almost constantly happy man who is delighted to have had such a good relationship, even though it was short lived.
By contrast, the other couples’ relationships are seemingly hanging together by very fine threads and it only takes the catalyst of Colin’s happiness to cut them.
Di (Abigail Thaw) is an archetypal seventies woman, a wife and mother who does what is expected of her and, by way of reward, is walked over by her erring husband Paul (Jonathan Guy Lewis).
Evelyn is a humourless and sullen young mother , superbly played by Clare Lamb, who barely speaks to her hyperactive husband John played by Dale Superville, who can neither sit still or switch off from work.
Meanwhile, the childless Marge, is there without her husband as he is ill in bed, as usual, but it soon becomes clear through a series of phone calls that he is not happy at all at being left alone. Sally Ann Triplett brilliantly portrays this character who, while being the funniest to watch is also the most tragic, and this encapsulates the ethos of the whole play.
As usual, Ayckbourn is capturing a slice of life, where people are making the best of things and great humour comes from their interaction as they try to relate to each other. But at the same time it is tense and painful and their underlying sadness is palpable. You laugh and cheer when Di tips a jug of cream over the odious Paul, but at the same time you know that she has come to the end of her tether. I was very aware of laughing and being aware of their pain at the same time – quite an uncomfortable feeling but the mark of true tragi-comedy.
Much of this play is firmly of its time. Some of the attitudes in the play are firmly stuck in the seventies, such as how the men see their women, while on a lighter note, the décor and costumes provide a wonderfully nostalgic trip with enough static on the stage to light up Watford and enough swirly wallpaper to make your head spin!
But, unlike the wallpaper, other issues are timeless, such as the different ways that people grieve and the difficulties that others have in relating to them.
There’s also a strange kind of message in the play that Colin’s short lived but ultimately tragic relationship was extremely happy , while those in long term relationships are miserable. It’s almost as if he’s saying that long term relationships can never be happy and that familiarity breeds contempt.
But if you want a night that provides you with both a good laugh and a lot to think about - Absent Friends is for you.