Reviews West End & Central Published 10 February 2012

Absent Friends

Harold Pinter Theatre ⋄ Booking to 14th April 2012

Souring the sugar.

Sarah Perry

Absent Friends is among the less effervescent of Alan Ayckbourn’s formidable output of plays. Lacking the warmth of The Norman Conquests, or the virtuoso display of Intimate Exchanges, it is, he said, an attempt to ‘sour the sugar’.

Jeremy Herrin’s revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre gives equal weight to both sour and sugar. Herrin has wisely chosen to locate the piece firmly in 1974, the year it was written: any update would have made the gender politics on display too problematic. The action – of which there is very little – takes place in real time, in a living room which could serve as a time capsule. No detail has been missed, from cheese-and-pineapple on cocktail sticks to an offensively ugly brown glass statue of a charging buffalo.

Five friends gather for a tea party, to console the recently bereaved Colin. Hostess Diana, played by Katherine Parkinson, displaces her suspicion that husband Paul (a gratifyingly hateful Steffan Rhodri) has been sleeping with the younger, prettier Evelyn (Kara Tointon) by fussing over the teapot. Tointon throws off all memories of her sequinned Strictly days by fixing her face in a sneer, and barking monosyllabically whenever spoken to – a one-note performance perhaps, but an amusing one. David Armand plays John, her amiable buffoon of a husband, the sort of man whose polyester trousers bespeak a life of endless small failures, and Elizabeth Berrington plays Marge, Diana’s staunch friend. Berrington’s performance is understated, but provides some welcome moments of genuine warmth alongside broad physical comedy. Parkinson is excellent as Diana, particularly when she finally abandons the pretence that all is well.

It is clear, even before Colin’s arrival, that bereavement will not be the only cause of unhappiness on display, as each of the characters tries, with varying degrees of success, to conceal their own private miseries. When the doorbell finally rings, bringing Reece Shearsmith as Colin, there is a palpable rise in energy. Shearsmith has that rare gift of wholly inhabiting a role, so that even without speaking there is always something to watch in his performance. Capable of rousing a laugh by doing little more than adjusting his glasses or pressing his knees still more anxiously together, he provides the perfect foil for the ensemble: some of the play’s best moments consist of silent, anguished reactions to him, as they try to support him without once acknowledge his reason for being there.

If the play is ultimately unsatisfactory, never quite managing to reconcile the comic potential of suburban awkwardness with the unpleasantness and unhappiness on display, it is a reminder – if it could ever be needed – that no-one beats Ayckbourn at scrutinising that most curious of species: the English.

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Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry has written on theatre, travel, food and the law for a number of publications including the Spectator. She has recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing under the supervision of Sir Andrew Motion, and devotes her newly free time to Sherlock Holmes, the Regent's Canal and a piano neglected too long. She is represented by the literary agency Rogers, Coleridge and White.

Absent Friends Show Info


Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Written by Alan Ayckbourn

Cast includes Kara Tointon, Katherine Parkinson, Elizabeth Berrington, Steffan Rhodri, David Armand, Reece Shearsmith

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