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Absent Friends

I generally enjoy an Alan Ayckbourn comedy, so when I saw that Malvern Theatres was showing Absent Friends, one I’ve not seen before, I decided to get myself a standby ticket to the Saturday matinée. His comedies are usually pretty dark, uncovering the unhappiness lying behind middle-class lives, and in particular middle-class marriages, and this one turned out to be no exception.

An unhappily-married couple invited some friends of theirs around for tea. The party was held in honour of a mutual friend, Colin, whose fiancée had drowned a few months ago. So there was an ongoing theme of death and loss that a few years ago I would have found a bit close to the bone. Fortunately, it didn’t bother me so much this time.

The plot was fairly standard for an Ayckbourn. The bullying, self-absorbed but very successful husband turned out to be serially unfaithful, including having a fling with one of the guests who was the wife of an incompetent business associate of his. Another invitee couldn’t make it because he was a hypochondriac (for which read needy malingerer) and ill in bed. He sent his wife instead, but then kept phoning to sound off at how unhappy and ill he was with her not there. Colin turned out to be unexpectedly cheerful, looking on the bright side of everything, but his innocent remarks and reminiscences uncovered the deep levels of unhappiness, jealousy, and resentments in everyone else’s lives, and led to the hostess having a nervous breakdown.

It was set in the mid-seventies, so there were some particularly horrendous fashion-crimes on display. Kaftans, flares, minidresses and platform heels were all there. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the play. It was more cringeworthy than laugh-out-loud funny, and some of the people involved were quite seriously unpleasant. I did seriously consider leaving at the interval, and in fact the couple two seats along from me did so. But I persevered, with the help of a mint-chocolate-chip ice cream. 

It was only a classic Ayckbourn in the sense that it stuck strictly to his usual themes and plot development.   The blurb in the advertising material provided by the theatre claimed it as one of finest plays, but I disagreed. I’ve enjoyed many other of his plays much more than this one, though the actors involved all did the best they could with the rather thin plot and cardboard characterisation. I was very glad that I’d only bought myself a standby ticket – I’d have felt ripped off if I’d paid full price.