Home » Reviews » Absent Friends, Harold Pinter Theatre

Absent Friends, Harold Pinter Theatre

Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Jeremy Herrin 
Pros: A good performance by Kara Tointon, some occasionally amusing moments.

Cons: A frankly dull script, lacked pace and energy and without any sparkling performances.

Our Verdict: Not the best we’ve seen, can’t recommend spending money on seeing it.

Courtesy of Simon Annand
It has always been our intention to publish reviews that are straightforward and unpretentious. We’re not experts; we don’t do intense research of the text, director and actors before we go, we just turn up and then write about what we see. The key question that we always ask ourselves is whether it was time (and money) well spent. With that in mind, let me be candid: this new production of Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends is tediously dull, and it lacks any sustained pace or energy. Pitched against the other shows on offer at the moment, I really can’t recommend that you spendtime (or money) on seeing it.
Ayckbourn’s script is, in my opinion, part of the problem. A tea party is thrown for Colin, whose wife has recently drowned in a tragic accident. Despite being in the worst personal predicament, Colin is positively cheerful whilst the rest of the group of friends are miserable. Diana is struggling to deal with the fact that husband Paul has cheated on her with Evelyn, the wife of John. In a separate plot line, Marge is having problems with her husband Gordon, who is overweight and always ill, and she is jealous of Evelyn, who is attractive and has a young baby. Ayckbourn fans will burn effigies of me for saying this, but it’s all a bit like a 1970s soap opera. It also wasn’t clear to me what genre the play is – is it a comedy, or is it a light-hearted look at how self-involved and thoughtless people are? Hard to tell seeing as it isn’t very funny, and it isn’t really cutting social commentary either.
It wasn’t all bad – there were some good performances, and the ensemble did work well together. Kara Tointon delivers a great performance as the straight talking Evelyn. The character is an interesting one – the play feels like one of those horribly awkward family reunions where everyone is being forced to make nice, and Tointon’s character is the brave one who voices what everyone is thinking, creating some uncomfortable but reasonably amusing moments. Despite the fact that she is basically a thoughtless bitch, I found myself engaging with her the most. Shearsmith is also very good as the well-to-do Colin, but other than that the rest of the individual performances weren’t sparkling, adding to the overall tedious nature of the evening.
There were rare moments which I enjoyed: the sudden flurry of nervous activity preceding the arrival of Colin, the several moments in which Diana (Katherine Parkinson) bursts into overly dramatic tears and storms off, and the amusing conversations between Marge and Gordon (who we never actually meet) on the phone for example. Additionally, I enjoyed Ayckbourn’s truly naturalistic style in which characters all talk over each other at certain times, presumably to highlight the self-involved theme again. The set, designed by Tom Scutt, is also very good, with excellent details that make it feel like a real home. Sadly however, this wasn’t enough to save this production for me, and on several occasions I found myself daydreaming as awkward silences filled the air.
Perhaps this production caught me on a bad day. Or perhaps it was the theatre itself – the Harold Pinter Theatre is not a wonder of theatrical design, and as always I found myself stuck behind a dastardly pillar. However I can’t help but feel that after all the excellent productions I’ve seen recently, this one just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments in the section below!

Absent Friends runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14th April 2012.
Box Office: 0844 871 7622 or book online at 

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Everything Theatre
Founded in 2011, Everything Theatre started life as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts and – thanks to the Entry Pass Scheme for 16-25 year olds – regular National Theatre goers. Today, we are run by part-time volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. Among our various contributors are people who work in theatre, but also people who work in law, medicine, events, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for the London theatre scene.
  • Frank Monea

    It seems as though you hated everything I thought best about the production. The awkward silences, from this theatregoer’s perspective, were brilliantly employed. Too often productions are over-paced to keep the laughs coming, when actually the humour, and the stolidity of human interaction, comes through the slow-mounting, palpable tension of a silent room. Mike Leigh’s ‘Ecstasy’ managed this brilliantly last year, and I for one think it very brave for a group of actors to allow the stage to sit still for a moment to allow the audience to guage the simmering tension below the otherwise safe and friendly surface. Theatre should be capable of allowing such naturalist inaction without fear of putting its audience to sleep.
    Also, Elizabeth Berrington deserves a mention for her brilliantly textured performance as Marge. The character’s embarrassing faux-pas’ and the banality of her conversation were excellently played.

    • I completely agree with everything you say in terms of the power of silence on stage – it is a brave thing for ensembles to do, and in the past it has been used very effectively (it was hugely effective and deeply thought-provoking in Flare Path as well).

      However I feel this production didn’t strike the right balance, mostly because I didn’t think there actually was any palpable tension in the silences. Again, I think this is because I didn’t connect with the characters or really engage with the script.

      I somewhat agree about Berrington – her interactions with the other characters were great. Perhaps I should have given her a mention, but again I wasn’t completely captivated by her performance.

      Thanks for commenting! It’s good for different opinions to be aired!