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