Look no further than the programme artwork to encapsulate the Coliseum’s new production of Absent Friends: that most refined of desserts, Mr. Kipling’s French Fancies, toppling from a cake stand. The cake stand is yet to hit the floor but the smash is thrillingly inevitable.
And so it is with the relationships on display during a Saturday afternoon in spring 1974. I have always been taught that theatre which picks apart themes such as failed marriages, shattered dreams and middle class identities is real theatre. Now, theatre that does so whilst treading the tightrope of comedy and pity is the work of a master. In this case the playwright is Scarborough’s beloved Sir: Alan Ayckbourn.
The afternoon’s events unfold in Colin Richmond’s meticulously detailed cream, orange and lime green 70’s lounge: rain coats on hooks, patio doors, dining table piled high with buffet food and an open cabinet with plenty of alcohol inside.
The tea party’s primary purpose, according to hostess Diana (Kerry Peers), is to provide support to Colin (David Crellin) who is grieving the tragic loss of his fiancée Carol. Though there are plenty of superbly awkward gaffs in this respect, the elephant in the room is surprisingly less this drowned love than the brief affair threatening to tear apart the two married couples on stage. Ayckbourn himself acknowledges that this play is less about death than it is about the death of love.
Nikolai Foster, whose direction here captures the integral balance between social graces and inner turmoil, observes “the way these married couples deal with each other is frightening.” For the majority of the play, smiles are plastered on Marge (Samantha Giles) and Di’s faces and there is an undercurrent of violence between the couples. Di brandishes a cake knife in the direction of her husband Paul (Steven Pinder) and John (Dominic Gately) boxes too close for comfort to his unfaithful wife’s face.
Indeed it is this young, bored wife Evelyn (Poppy Tierney) who provides the only semblance of sanity in the group of friends. Tierney chews gum and raises her eyebrows to accusations and pleasantries throughout. She delivers some fantastic lines with a disinterested drawl: when Marge labels the back-seat sexual encounter with Paul “Disgusting!”, Evelyn replies “No, it wasn’t very nice.”
Giles grabs the audience’s attention with her selfish yet eager to please Marge, Di’s loyal friend who mothers an off stage sickly husband as he won’t agree to have any children. Marge speaks as though her friends are deaf with an endearingly ridiculous laugh to boot whilst Gately’s boundless energy (jiggling, clapping, inability to sit down) as John provides further guilt-free comedy. Indeed, the six strong cast cannot be faulted: from Pinder’s authentic range of light chauvinism, cruelty and embarrassment, to Crellin’s naïve optimism and finally Peers who hurtles Di between coolly exhaling a cigarette one second and helpless wailing the next.
The climax of Absent Friends brings home some uncomfortable truths about the discrepancy between childhood dreams and the disappointing present, yet Ayckbourn ensures that we are neither laughing at the characters’ expense nor our own. Colin is glad for the time he could spend with Carol before she died and nothing can take that away from him just as Paul’s current cruelty does not wholly erase the memory of stealing Di’s table napkin as a teenager in love.