The London Classic Theatre is currently celebrating its 15th anniversary as a touring company with the production of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1974 play Absent Friends. Contrary to the zeitgeist of presenting period plays in contemporary settings, director Michael Cabot has stuck assiduously to the play’s original Seventies setting. This diligence has been rewarded with some fantastic characterisation by a cast more than capable of delivering the same laughter that its début would have sparked 41 years ago.
Eras may come and go, but the timeless quality of this play reveals to us that human relationships are destined to follow the same path, generation after generation. Love is seen as a Sisyphean struggle from which we have no escape – always we attempt to conquer its madness, and always we fail. The betrothals, the marriages, the affairs, and the deaths are all inescapable, yet we attempt to negate them. Ayckbourn’s characters – sitting, standing, awkwardly shuffling around the living room of a middle-class, petit bourgeois couple’s home – highlight the things that we think we can change, when, in reality, there is little hope of doing so.
There is such chemistry between the actors that one cannot help but admire this production. The character of Paul doesn’t really give Kevin Drury much to work with, but he does an admirable job nonetheless. Kathryn Ritchie’s Evelyn (Paul’s new nemesis) seems to have more soul as a character, even though the majority of what she has to say is expressed in monosyllabic grunts. This can be said, however, to be Ayckbourn’s social commentary on the meaningless and often unfulfilling result of lust and adultery versus goodness and stability. This is best realised in Lisa Burrows (the mercurial Diana, the wife of Paul). Through her portrayal of grief, hysteria and despair, we get a sense of the futility of making choices, and of regretting the decisions of the past.
Susie Emmett plays the scatty yet pleasant Marge perfectly, as she manoeuvres back and forth on stage, attempting not to collapse in her “fashionable” new shoes. John (John Dorney) – husband of Evelyn and underling of Paul – is our slapstick entertainer: a lacklustre person who is used and abused by nearly everyone close to him and who cannot sit still. His underdog attitude and awkwardness is well done, and Dorney draws in the audience from his entrance onward. Colin, the main protagonist played by Pete Collis, is the epitome of what he shouldn’t be: a man who has lost his fiancée, yet retains a summery and often inspirational disposition. He embodies not loss and grief, but gratitude for what he once had, in a room – in a world – where it is all too easy to take for granted what is already there in front of us.
Gloriously absurd and darkly comic, LCT’s production of Absent Friends is a must-see. This fusion of tragedy and farce superbly illustrates the absurdity of the human condition, how we can be lonely in a crowd, and suffer for love. Ayckbourn shows us the complexities of existing in a world with other people, and in which love, hate, desire and loss collide.
G. B. P. Chatterton