Absent Friends is basically Alan Acykbourn’s bread and butter. He is, after all, the grand master of awkward afternoon teas, and this one – held to gee up an old friend, Colin, after the death of his fiancée – has all the requisite ingredients from the off. It’s been three years since anyone saw Colin, a social butterfingers at the best of times, and there’s a sprinkling of adultery to enhance the unease. The social stiltedness, Ayckbourn’s signature, comes too easily and the playwright needs not bother with patient, piecemeal accumulation.
Played in one location and real time, it’s solid, textbook fare – perfect for the West End – and Jeremy Herrin’s production can’t afford to put a foot wrong. Happily, it doesn’t, even building to an elegantly mournful conclusion in which five of the six friends stand staring into space, each locked in their own miserable thoughts. The other, hostess Diana, is zonked out on sleeping pills upstairs, more distraught than any of them.
All of them, except Colin, have been run down by the passage of time. Dreams have faded and romances dwindled into routine. Melancholy has set in with blame laid squarely on the broad shoulders of masculinity, all forms of which are represented here. Steffan Rhodri’s Paul is a typical Ayckbourn alpha; distant, unfeeling and altogether unrepentant; John (David Armand) is beta, nervously twitching and limply sucking up; the unseen Gordon, Mr Gamma, permanently laid low with petty ailments, phoning in for motherly advice from his too-too-patient wife Marge (a droll Elizabeth Berrington); finally, Reece Shearsmith’s Colin, off the scale of omega, is sensitive and keen-eared, most of all cheerful, but ultimately a child. ‘He’s a nice boy,’ says Marge, when he finally goes home.
To refine it, male arrogance is on trial here. Paul thinks himself a sports star; John, a comedian; and Colin, the first to know true love. As Kara Tointon’s stony-faced Evelyn – Paul’s one-time mistress – suggests, ‘All men think that they’re experts with women. By the time they are, they’re too old to do anything about it’. Where does this leave the women? Well, thoroughly depressed, trotting after their husbands and trying not to cause a fuss, mostly. Katherine Parkinson’s Diana grittedly soldiers on, but slips into black holes en route and, eventually, bursts into a bray of pent-up tears.
Tom Scutt’s design suggests ‘twas ever thus, not only capturing the gauche horrors of seventies décor (every shade of beige is here), but wittily implanting a prehistoric twist. Pot plants hang from the wall and a wood-carved crocodile stands on the stone mantelpiece, itself reminiscent of a cave wall. It is a perfectly Pangrean living room.
The flip side of all this is that Herrin is playing with archetypes, and only Shearsmith punctures through to give us a distinctive original. His Colin is a speccy little mole of a man with a bad case of the verbal squits. More specific are the various combinations of individual relationships. Nonetheless, there are some brilliantly arch comic moments – particular in the don’t-mention-the-dead-fiancée mould – and its always emotionally supple and full of subtext.
Herrin has delivered a well-oiled, fine-tuned, and deftly-performed production of a decent play that’s come straight off the conveyor belt.