One of the lesser known of Ayckbourn’s seventy plus plays, London Classic Theatre Company have revived this classic gem as a 70’s period piece, rather than attempt to update it. First performed in 1974, it plays in real time as a claustrophobic relationship drama, classic Ayckbourn , in a format which found its apogee in Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party”. The neurosis will be familiar to all devotees of contemporaneous comedies “Fawlty Towers” and “Rising Damp”.
The plot unfolds in the lounge of Diana and Paul’s executive house, at a party organised to cheer up Colin, whose fiancée has recently drowned. However it is the lives of the enthusiastic, and less than enthusiastic, party givers which come under scrutiny, rather than that of the bereaved Colin. Colin, nerdy and oblivious to the chaos around him, is confidently and pleasingly played by Ashley Cook. Even before he arrives, relationships are being tested and imploding.
Diana, played by Catherine Harvey with engaging wit, convinces, as she systematically unravels before us. The brooding , frustrated Evelyn (Kathryn Ritchie) endures her inept, restless husband, John (John Dorney)with bored stoicism even when confronted by Diana who is convinced she is having an affair with her bully of a husband Paul (Kevin Drury) who bears an uncanny resemblance to the politician Ian Duncan Smith.
Director Michael Cabot handles Ayckbourn adroitly with a well- paced production which overcomes the inevitable stasis of the setting. Our awkwardness with death underpins the narrative of the play, illuminated by the juxtaposition of the bereaved but seemingly ebullient Colin who exposes the fault lines in the lives of those around him as he explores love, almost as a narrator. The absent friend, Gordon, husband to the fretful Marge ( Alice Selwyn), who is indisposed, hovers throughout. Selwyn is wonderful in her supporting role, as awkward in her newly purchased shoes as she is in saying the wrong thing.
However Cabot’s touch is not beyond reproach. Evelyn, while consistently monosyllabic, fails to convince as a temptress. Her antipathy towards Paul fails to explore their love/hate relationship and borrows a little too heavily on Catherine Tates’ ” Am I bovvered?” template. Paul himself exudes plenty of affected ennui, but lacks bite and spite in his exchanges with Dianna. Crucially, Madge’s pivotal final coda to proceedings is almost lost at the end.
The simple single set evokes the 70’s with painstaking precision, the comedy is spiky, sometimes uncomfortable, but often laugh out loud. This is a satisfying revival which will please all Ayckbourn fans as much as it did when first performed some forty one years ago.
Absent Friends performed by London Classic Theatre, runs until Saturday 11th July . Gary Longden