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Absent Friends (Colchester, Mercury Theatre)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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1974 seems to be in a different time zone to 2012. Yet, as with most things which seem merely to be past history, there are human aspects which never change. Alan Ayckbourn is a master at winkling these into the forefront of our perception. Gari Jones’s new production does very well by what – with hindsight – might be seen as the playwright’s turning-point drama.

Absent Friends proceeds at a spanking pace as two marriages unravel in front of us, one looks likely to slip off the needle quite soon and the third (of course) never progressed from the pattern stage. It’s helped along by Foxton’s excellent set – all 1970s aspirational chic from the geometric wallpaper and curtains to the Costa-inspired metal and glass doors – and costumes. So we encounter Diana ([Amanda Haberland) as an all-but clone for Beverly in Mike Leigh’s near-contemporary Abigail’s Party.

It’s a delicious performance, balanced by that of Ignatius Anthony as Diana’s equally infuriating husband Paul. David Tarkenter twitches to perfection as not-so-successful salesman John, whose wife Evelyn (Clare Humphrey) runs rings around him while apparently just rocking the pram, chewing gum and flipping through women’s interest magazines. Then there’s Colin, whose fiancée has drowned (wrapping Colin in a blanket of friendly warmth is the stated reason for this ferociously splintered get-together).

Ben Livingstone bumbles across his men friends’ and their wives’ good intentions with all the insouciance of a well-fed bee who has no intention of being swatted as a wasp. There’s a beautifully detailed portrait of Marge, the slightly dowdy wife of a sickbed-confined husband (fortunately we never meet Graham in the too-too-solid flesh) by Gina Isaac, who contrives to let us recognise, understand, sympathise with and be irritated by the character in rapid succession – often all at the same time.

Just one gripe, and it’s nothing to do with the production or the performers. I know it’s considered respectful and democratic in these anti-hierachal days to list actors’ names alphabetically in the programme, but could we please have a return to the older style which listed characters in order of appearance. Alphabetical order is fine if you know the play in question really well, but it’s not helpful to audience members encountering it for the first time.


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