Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne
The Devonshire Park Theatre slips into time-warp this week with a Seventies cocktail party. Raise a glass to Absent Friends.
Alan Ayckbourn is a prolific writer, with almost eighty plays to his name, and his wry characterisations and witty mastery of phrase rarely fail.
London Classic Theatre, an intelligent and adventurous company, makes its Eastbourne debut in fine style here. Michael Cabot’s direction brings vividly alive a potentially quite dated piece.
The set is lovingly recreated with big swirly patterns, lots of detail and all the little trinkets. Catherine Harvey’s hostess Diana has prepared an ample feast of pineapples on sticks, and Kathryn Ritchie’s laconic Evelyn browses magazines with Twelve Tips to Make Your Man Happy. Welcome to 1974.
This is no ordinary Ayckbourn, though, despite the familiar domestic setting, the usual complex relationships, and the same sharply comic characters. This time, each of the six players casts a darker shadow. The author actually called Absent Friends “a play about the death of love”, and it treads an awkward path between comedy and pathos.
The ’70s colours may be garish, but the acting is uniformly graphic, bold and convincing. The cast have grasped the essence of Ayckbourn. It is comedy of embarrassment, verging sometimes on theatre of cruelty. Manners and conventions are sliced and shredded. You will laugh and wince in equal measure.
The marital tangles have a sort of awful equilibrium. Catherine Harvey, overdressed and garrulous, is covering her insecurities and likely to blub at any moment. Husband Paul, perfectly observed by Kevin Drury, is an unreformed chauvinist, playing squash and playing away with Katherine Ritchie’s gloriously laconic Evelyn.
Meanwhile Evelyn’s other half John (John Dorney) is cringingly inept. Remember those silly pouffes and impossible bar stools? Dorney tumbles off both with persistent ease and we squirm with him. Alice Selwyn as Marge – the most sympathetic of this dysfunctional bunch – spends most of the play patching up other people’s squabbles. And old flame Ashley Cook turns up with photo albums and uncomfortable memories.
Occasionally the script rambles as characters lapse into over-long monologues. But more often, the quick-fire Ayckbourn dialogue is brilliantly rattled off by actors who have the timing to a tee.
It’s far from a tired old revival, this. It’s classic Ayckbourn, and with a dark, extra dimension.