Absent Friends (Stevenage Gordon Craig Theatre)

The year is 1974. The location is an up-to-the-minute suburban house. Diana is hosting a tea party for old friends of hers and her businessman husband Paul. What could possibly go wrong?

Ben Manning & Chris Simmons in rehearsal
Ben Manning & Chris Simmons in rehearsal

The play is Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends, staged by Catherine Lomax as the latest in a twice-yearly sequence of in-house productions at Stevenage's Gordon Craig Theatre – itself dating from the same year.

Ayckbourn provides us with plot twists a-plenty; you can even take the title in more than one way. When we meet her, Terri Dwyer's Diana is a slightly upmarket version of Mike Leigh's Beverly, that Medusa hostess from Abigail's Party, all ankle-length pleats and frills. Diana's with-it veneer soon cracks however.

Part of this is caused by Helen Barford's acerbic Evelyn. Eschewing Laura Ashley for sub-Courrèges angularity, she's equally disenchanted with her husband John (Chris Simmons), their new-born son and the couple hosting the occasion. Then there's Marge (Sarah Lawn), also a floaty dresser, married to Gordon who's ill in bed at home and feeling more than usually sorry for himself.

The occasion for the gathering is Colin, an old friend whose fiancée Carole has been drowned while they were on holiday. Ben Manning makes this puppy-dog of a bank manager into the sort of pleasant chap who causes mayhem all around him, while maintaining the best of all possible intentions.

Joel Beckett's Paul has just the right sort of brashness for the part. We don't particularly like him; Ayckbourn doesn't intend that we should. Simmons, all twitch and frustration, balances him and Lomax's direction keeps the action on the move. The excellent set is by Andy Newell.

Absent Friends runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 8 February.