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Jamie Tabberer


Theatre review - Absent Friends

@ Harold Pinter Theatre, London


Alan Ayckbourn's little known black comedy is, essentially, an observation of six tea party-attending, middle-class frenemies; an exploration of their empty-shell marriages and horrendous/chic 70s fashion tastes. It’s decades old but fizzes with modern relevance, and not just because the clothes and furniture on display will have the East London hipsters staging a midnight burglary of this sweet little theatre. It’s applicable to now because it bitingly illustrates heteronormative ideologies that still persist, and the sometimes-damaging effects they have on relationships they don’t fit.

At the centre of this ensemble piece is the recently bereaved Colin; following the drowning of fiancé Carol he finds himself invited to an intimate party of the tea and sympathy variety at the home of some old friends; or, rather, guilt-ridden ghosts of his past who’ve neglected him for years. The group, awkwardly uncomfortable from the off at the prospect of comforting Colin, soon discover he’s already made sense of his loss and is surprisingly happy. This, of course, only serves to freak them out more, partly because it further underlines their own loathed lives, and partly because his behaviour is, well, a little odd. Thankfully Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentleman, Psychoville) bestows on his character the light touches of the bizarre and surreal he's known for, enough to lift Colin from everyman territory and compel your attention in the shadow of much louder characters with heaps more to say.

Interestingly, the play explores the character of hostess Diana in the most depth. She starts out with beautiful intentions, as a sandwich-sharing desperate housewife – say, Bree Van De Kamp’s less capable little sister. But she swiftly unravels, consumed by an obsessive belief that her ignorant ass of a husband Paul (Steffan Rhodri on hatefully arrogant form) is having an affair with none other than reluctant guest of the get-together Evelyn, wife of Paul’s 'friend' and business associate John.

Despite an unsure start and a fluffed line or two, it’s great to see The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson defy expectations as Diana, and confront head on scenes of crippling pain and regret that escalate to hysterical levels. What initially seems akin to an amusing toddler’s paddy is something much darker on reflection; at one point Evelyn is so gripped by her own unhappiness she has to be given a sleeping pill to calm down.

Strictly’s Kara Tointon is the sociopathic, laconic Evelyn, the woman who has indeed had guiltless and yet by all accounts disagreeable sex with Diana’s husband only the week before. Deliciously unpleasant, she describes the act as “as exciting as being made love to by sack of clammy cement,” and yet, Tointon avoids the pitfalls of the two-dimensional bitch blueprint. Despite minimal dialogue and lack of movement, we as the audience are always poised for a sudden and possibly violent onslaught from her, like the predator that she is. She could be empty on the inside – despite being a new mother she shows her baby no apparent affection, for example – but on the other hand, she could be the one suffering the most. She is, after all, married to the insipid and annoying John (David Armand, looking unexpectedly hot with a beard). Perhaps we’d know if, unlike her neurotic friends, she were not so stoically accepting of her fate, a characteristic men are so commonly praised for.

Extracting comedy from pain is not easy. Thus director Jeremy Herrin makes the most of Elizabeth Berrington and her knack for comic timing by cranking up the volume of the graceless Marge. Not only does she get the best lines – the scene where she forgets the name of the deceased is a cracker – but also the most complex character. Seemingly older than Diana and Evelyn, the role of doting housewife seems to come most naturally to her (her infantile, hypochondriac husband, a friend of Colin, Paul and John’s, is ill at home in bed, and she apparently doesn’t mind the fact he’s horribly fat). And yet her love of slutty platform shoes and aggressive fascination with Evelyn’s misdemeanors (‘You’re DISGUSTING!”) hint at repressed longings, contradicting the implied sadness her childlessness brings her.

It might be about straight couples, it might be about straight marriage and it might be about heteronormativity, but you’re bound to find something familiar in this raucously funny but desperately sad examination of relationships running their course.

****

absentfriendstheplay.com

Until 14 April
Harold Pinter Theatre
Panton Street
London
SW1Y 4DN

PHOTO CREDIT: SIMON ANNAND

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