The former Comedy Theatre is an appropriate venue for Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends, a 1974 play – the very first of his bleaker mini-masterpieces - that is not so much funny as cruel, disconcerting and, well, rather Harold Pinter in a suburban sort of way.
The old Richard Briers role of the bereaved Colin, who turns up for a tea party organised by misguidedly sympathetic friends, is wonderfully well taken by the blinking, bespectacled Reece Shearsmith, wearing a beige jacket and plum-coloured trousers that are too long and too baggy for him.
It’s a very funny turn, stylistically abrasive against Ayckbourn’s writing but persuasive on its own terms. There’s a new wave of Ayckbourn performance, signalled by the National’s Season’s Greetings with Mark Gatiss and Catherine Tate, as well as this show’s brilliant Katherine Parkinson, which challenges a more traditional, perhaps cosier, kind of comedy character acting.
Shearsmith thinks he’s playing a funny role, and sports a vaguely Northern comic accent to prove it. This is very different from Briers being the Home Counties fellow himself, indomitably cheerful and impervious to the bubbling discontent around him.
The ordinariness of Ayckbourn is here sliding into the more pointed, knowing, satirical playing in a Mike Leigh piece. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it creates a very different frisson around the work.
Colin’s hosts, Steffan Rhodri’s bluff supplies executive Paul and Parkinson’s fragile, suspicious Diana, are played with a comic edge that slightly undermines their innate vulnerability.
Paul is having a sordid affair (“like a sack of cement; no worse than with my husband”), with Kara Tointon’s brutally indifferent Evelyn, who wheels her baby on and off in his pram and otherwise simply sits sullenly chewing gum and flicking through magazines.
And Elizabeth Berrington’s childless fusspot, Marge – in occasional telephone contact with an obese husband at home, a fire prevention officer who’s burst his own hot water bottle – signals the rising tide of embarrassment by pretending everything’s just fine.
The group of friends haven’t seen Colin for three years, in which time he’s found and lost (she drowned) the love of his life. His radiant happiness in bereavement lights up the misery in this vale of tears the others are still going through.
Jeremy Herrin’s production – wittily designed in period by Tom Scutt (Evelyn lolls on a Parker Knoll leatherette sofa chair for most of the duration) and beautifully lit by Peter Mumford – keeps the static stage picture animated, climaxing in Diana’s desperate and hilarious outburst about wishing she’d been a Canadian Mountie before she pours a jug of cream over her husband’s head.
The play always seemed remarkable and uncompromising. It still does: Shearsmith is sheer delight, as he was in Betty Blue Eyes, and David Armand makes bearded boringness attractive, though he overdoes the arbitrarily switched-on finger-clicking mannerism and needs to ditch the wayward, sticky-out wig instanter.