Greenwich Theattre, London SE10
Opened 29 April, 1997

The Greenwich Theatre has long cherished its association with Alan Ayckbourn, and on this occasion chooses to revisit (with, in irksomely modish fashion, Sir Alan's name above the title) Absent Friends, the 1974 play which confirmed the author's growing interest in more than merely convenient comical discomfiture. Whilst one of the significant absences onstage is straightforwardly humorous as Marge (Caroline Holdaway) takes a series of telephone calls from her husband, who manages to suffer endless misfortunes even when confined to his bed the tone is primarily set by Colin's rhapsodising about his recently deceased fiancée.

The play's genre unmodulated contemporary drawing-room comedy lulls director Michael Simkins into conducting matters rather more formally and less fluidly than Ayckbourn as a director handles his own work (the author being less prone than most to treating his plays as "Ayckbourn comedies"); scenes are played with tightness and precision, but rather too much by the book. James McCarthy, as the philandering Paul, resorts often to stage sarcasm; for all his wife Diana's edgy insecurity, Louisa Rix carries a perceptible whiff of performance through early social niceties and later breakdown alike. David Pullan as John is unable quite to square the circle of fleeing from the topic of death unobtrusively enough for the other tea-party guests not to notice, yet so visibly as to draw audience laughter.

Gillian Tompkins's estuarial accent as Evelyn John's wife, Paul's messy conquest sounds more out of place in the suburban setting even than intended, but suits her laconic boredom well, particularly when reading out with amusing flatness a magazine article on "how to keep your man happy". The play, though, is driven by Colin: the revelations between the six people present seldom come openly, but are rather revealed by the others' embarrassment as Colin prattles on like an innocent, holy fool. Richard Derrington strikes a fine balance in the role: his affability never tips over into idiocy, as he unknowingly glides rather than steamrollers over the growing uneasiness he inadvertently generates.

Jessica Tyrwhitt's design and the pre-show music locate the play vaguely in the mid-1980s, but period is not of the essence. In comparison with much of Ayckbourn's subsequent work, both the form and content of Absent Friends are relatively small beer, an impression reinforced by this comfortable but unexceptional production.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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