Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends is very much a product of its time. Written and set in the 1970s, it gives an intimate and excruciating view of what happens when a group of old friends spend the evening together in the wake of one of their number losing his fiancee.
The implication is that people inevitably change and so do their relationships and friendships, leaving you barely on speaking terms with your husband or barely able to put up with someone you've known for twenty years. Ayckbourn ratchets up the tension in this light but tense play, showing that each character is really as vile as the others.
As needy host Diana, heading full-pelt towards a nervous breakdown, Gillian McCafferty is mostly spot-on, but sometimes overly mannered, as is Chas Early as blustering, philandering husband Paul, not-so-secretly sleeping with business partner John's wife Evelyn. Giles Fagan as Colin is fine, but Shaun Stone is miscast as John, overplaying the nervous nature of his character with crazed facial expressions and constantly jangling coins.
Fiona Gordon is fun as the super saintly Marge, who has barely managed to tear herself away from useless husband Gordon to come to the party, but the real saving grace of this production is the fabulously snooty Olivia Busby's Evelyn. Only there to support her husband and hating every minute of it, Busby conveys Evelyn's disgust at the situation perfectly with a range of wonderful facial expressions and snappy responses.
This is a play very much of its time – and one that has not quite stood the test. The first half was devoid of more than a few laughs and while the second half was much more amusing, it still felt very hit and miss, as did the casting.