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Review Round-up: Absent Friends is a hit at the Pinter

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A major West End revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends opened last night (9 February, previews from 26 January 2012) at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Ayckbourn’s dark comedy, originally written in 1974, is directed by Jeremy Herrin and stars David Armand, Elizabeth Berrington, Katherine Parkinson, Steffan Rhodri, Reece Shearsmith and Kara Tointon.

The play is set at a dismal tea party attended by unhappily married couples hoping to console an old friend whose fiancée (who they've never met) has just passed away. The party progresses while the middle-aged friends reveal the misery and failure of their own relationships. As it turns out, the mourning guest of honour becomes the one responsible for comforting everyone else.

Absent Friends continues until 14 April 2012.

Michael Coveney

“The former Comedy Theatre is an appropriate venue for Absent Friends, a 1974 play 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 … is wonderfully well taken by the blinking, bespectacled Reece Shearsmith … It’s a very funny turn, stylistically abrasive against Ayckbourn’s writing but persuasive on its own terms … 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 … Jeremy Herrin’s production – wittily designed and beautifully lit – keeps the static stage picture animated … 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.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

“This is not Ayckbourn in trouserless ha-ha farce mode. It is thoughtful, melancholy, in places intentionally slow, the humour restrained … The play depicts nostalgia, lovelessness, social awkwardness and more in a detached, middle-class English house of the early Seventies. It finishes in a daringly downbeat fashion, the tick of a clock starting to fill the air … You may file out of the theatre in silent contemplation rather than whooping … Jeremy Herrin’s production takes a while to reach cruising altitude. It does so only with a scene when marital discord is breaking out between various miserable husbands and wives, and Marge is on the phone to bed-bound Gordon. The acting is spot-on. Reece Shearsmith’s Colin, so sweetly upbeat that he is maddening, reminded me at moments of Ronnie Corbett. Katherine Parkinson is perfect as daffy, depressed Diana who eventually has a hog-whimpering nervous collapse, gasping her fantasy of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Kara Tointon’s Evelyn supplies catty glamour, and the way Elizabeth Berrington plays Marge made me think of Alison Steadman. Top work from Miss Berrington … The set is a (well-executed) horror of Seventies décor.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

Alan Ayckbourn likes to tell the story of the woman who came up to him after a performance of one of his darker comedies and told him ‘If I’d known what I was laughing at I wouldn’t have started laughing at all.’ And that was certainly my feeling on emerging from Jeremy Herrin’s superb revival of Absent Friends (1974) one of the bleakest of all Ayckbourn’s plays. Though there are often hilarious scenes of social embarrassment, it is the emotional wasteland most of the characters inhabit that lingers in the memory … There are some wonderful moments of black comedy, especially when Elizabeth Berrington’s gauche Marge remarks that though she doesn’t like her tea strong, she doesn’t want it drowned. But the overriding impression is of pain and festering marital resentments, with the men as the clear villains of the piece … Katherine Parkinson is particularly fine as the nervy hostess of this macabre tea party, Kara Tointon is almost equally good as the sulky slut who has rogered Parkinson’s vile husband on the back seat of his car … Reece Shearsmith hilariously captures the insufferably smug good cheer of Colin, using his bereavement as an excuse to offer crass advice to friends who never really cared for him, and there are many moments in Absent Friends when it becomes physically impossible to stop laughing. But it wasn’t just a fresh fall of snow that made me shiver as I left the theatre. It was the sense of blighted lives and the transience of the heart’s affections.”

Michael Billington

Jeremy Herrin is bang on the money with the revival of this much less familiar piece from 1974. There are times when you are caught between laughter and tears ... Any budding dramatist could learn a vast amount from the economy and skill with which Ayckbourn sets up the situation. But his craftsmanship and the laughter it generates almost camouflage the acute social observation … The pivotal figure is Diana, whom Katherine Parkinson superbly endows with a quality of slowly erupting despair … But all the performances in this production are finely judged. Kara Tointon has just the right broodiness as the edgy Evelyn, who is like a comic version of the young mother in Edward Bond's Saved. Elizabeth Berrington's Marge meanwhile uses relentless busyness to conceal her own sadness in not having children ... And the men, however impossible, are equally well played. Steffan Rhodri's Paul is the archetypal Ayckbourn male bully, David Armand as the cuckolded John is all restless, arm-waving energy, and Reece Shearsmith as Colin has the bright-eyed bounciness of the truly insensitive … Because Ayckbourn is always there, and because he has written some 75 plays, we tend to take him for granted. But this play, in which the action takes place in real time, displays not only his technical adroitness but his psychological understanding of the havoc created by the happily well-meaning.”

Simon Edge
Daily Express

“It’s not just the trim phone, the G-plan furniture and the platter of uneaten cheesy pineapples that tell us we’re back in the seventies in Alan Ayckbourn’s two-act tragi-comedy. It’s also the emotional constipation. Ayckbourn’s mean-minded caricatures have always been too one-dimensional for my liking and Jeremy Herrin’s revival leaves me as baffled as ever by the audience’s insistence on chuckling at every line, however mundane … But I also remain unconvinced about his ear for how real people speak and his basic stage mechanics. In dramas that rely on getting people in and out of rooms to maximise embarrassment or conflict he is never much good at giving them reasons to come and go. As the only two characters with any heart, Parkinson and Shearsmith give warm, energetic performances that glue the evening together … Elizabeth Berrington is daffy and occasionally withering as unhappy Marge, doomed to put her foot in it, while Steffan Rhodri and David Armand do their best with a pair of colourless husbands, one charmless, the other fidgety … But Kara Tointon looks even more bored than the role requires as Evelyn … this production does nothing to alter my view that more craft, less rush to move on to the next one, plus a greater generosity of spirit would have served him a lot better.”

Caroline McGinn
Time Out

“This 1974 portrait of a desperate hostess, her mean husband and their so-called friends is played out in agonising real time. It begins as kitsch sitcom. But its precision, understanding and deepening awfulness help it erupt emotionally beyond its genre boundaries, mingling laughter and tears … An exceptional cast makes the tragedy and comedy equally visible, in a grimly polished '70s lounge-play that's a bit like a theatrical version of 'shag, marry or kill' … Two of the men (Steffan Rhodri's shagging, bullying Paul and David Armand's fidgety, unscrupulous John) are so repulsive that you want to rush onstage with pepper spray. Paul's wife Diana, the outstanding Katherine Parkinson, does her best with a jug of cream … and is central, tragic and very moving. In a night of ridiculously detailed flair, Shearsmith's Colin, a Candide in knitting-pattern clothing, takes the comedy prize, with special mention to Elizabeth Berrington's Marge, forever on the phone to her obese hypochondriac husband … But Jeremy Herrin's intelligent, sensitive production rounds them all out. It achieves the feat of taking Ayckbourn's female characters seriously without losing the fun.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

Absent Friends makes grief funny - a rare feat. And although Alan Ayckbourn's 1974 play is a period piece, its sharp understanding of psychology feels up-to-date … What starts as an exercise in consolation turns into a truly excruciating occasion, played out in the confines of a suburban sitting room. A superbly detailed design by Tom Scutt evokes the Seventies in all its polyester ghastliness … Diana is the most tragic character, and Katherine Parkinson's performance is soulful. Her sad personal history could have been depicted by Chekhov; although her role is the most physically demonstrative (thanks in part to some business with a cream jug), it's also the one with the densest subtext … Jeremy Herrin's meticulous direction ensures that every last scintilla of comedy is extracted from Ayckbourn's script. Although this isn't the most complex of pieces, Herrin finds layers of desolation in it. The result is a fine blend of the comic and the painful.”

Paul Taylor

“The clothes and decor here (from clunky plaform shoes to radial sun clocks) situate the piece very firmly in the 1970s ... The play opens with the bleak hilarity of a sequence in which the main hostess Diana (excellent Katherine Parkinson speaking with a built-in chuckle to the voice that seems be incubating a violent breakdown) rabbits on in a near-monologue about her inadequacies and her husband's infidelities. It's semaphored too loudly in this production that she is trying to bounce an adulterous confession from Kara Tointon's gum-chewing affectless Evelyn ... Wonderful Elizabeth Berrington plays childless Marge, the last of the trio has transferred her maternal affections to a mountainous, permanently invalid and disaster-prone husband who keeps ringing from his sick bed … Full of amusing gaffes that demonstrate our nervousness about death, the play is weakened by a back story that does not, to my mind, add up and by the stereotypical nature of the characters. But Reece Shearsmith … is in glorious form as Colin, all bouncy born-again brightness and car-crash concern and beautifully hinting just before his final exit that all is not as well with him as he makes out. ”

- McKenzie Kramer


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