House of the rising fun

paul and colin

Ashley Cook as Colin and Kevin Drury as Paul finding amusement amid the tension . . . and the hedgehog of cheese and pineapple on sticks, poshed up with cherries instead of the more mundane silverskin onions - along with the Hornsea Bronte coffee set, fixing the era as accurately as carbon dating

Absent Friends

Belgrade Theatre Coventry

*****

AVOCADO bathroom suites and shagpile carpets probably weren’t our finest hour, but Alan Ayckbourn was busy as a beaver writing 13 plays in 1974 alone, including Absent Friends.

It uses the classic concepts of the loss of love, thwarted expectations, social embarrassment and class as its underpinnings. Its fully rounded and ‘real’ characters are all at different stages in their marriages.

Larger-than-life, successful businessman Paul (Kevin Drury) and homemaker Diana (Catherine Harvey) have been married 18 years and bitterness is all that remains. New mum, the taciturn, gum-chewing Evelyn (Kathryn Richie) and fidget John (John Dorney) are officially in the throes of new love after just 18 months but already in trouble: add to these the motherly, born to shop Marge (Alice Selwyn) and Gordon (who is at home ill in bed).

Diana throws an afternoon party for Colin (Ashley Cook) - whose new love Carol has recently drowned – ostensibly to cheer him up. When he arrives he is the most cheery of the party! Colin’s innocent faith in the power of enduring love makes him sweetly unaware of the tensions in the room. Diana has just discovered (and reveals to Marge) that Paul was having an affair with Evelyn. This undertow completes the comic content of the scene as he chatters happily about his lost love.

Absent Friends precedes Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party - where social pretensions can’t disguise tensions at home - by three years, and it does pop into your mind as you watch this wonderful play.

I particularly enjoyed watching Evelyn, whose manner is so disengaged, she chews her gum, says little unless forced, and reads magazines. John explains why he married her, “She has no sense of humour. I don’t have to waste time entertaining her.”

But why did she marry him? Who knows? Diana’s explanation of her reasons for marrying Paul are interesting, “Because he kept asking me.” But she reveals in her darkest hour that she really wanted to join the Canadian Mounted Police but was told that, as a girl, she wasn’t allowed. For those of us who married in the 1970s – and looking round at the audience that was a mighty proportion – that’s all too eerily familiar.

So why revisit a play that was written and first performed in 1974? A classic has something new to say to every generation, then this play has it in spades. For all the women there has been a big change: for Diana an empty nest, for Evelyn a new baby and new demands, for Marge Gordon has become the baby she wants. Carol has died before she and Colin can even get started. I leave you to make your own conclusions about this wonderful play. Directed by Michael Cabot, this London Classic Theatre production runs to 13-06-15

Jane Howard

08-06-15

Absent Friends runs at Derby Theatre, 7-11 July and at Cheltenham Everyman 13-18 July 

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