That anyone ever dismissed Alan Ayckbourn as a writer of slight comedies now seems remarkable. Recent revivals of The Norman Conquests and Season’s Greetings have revelled in his comic skill but have also demonstrated just how mercilessly he depicts crumpled hopes and empty lives. And he has a voice of his own: when the curtain rises on Jeremy Herrin’s painfully good, pointedly cruel revival of Absent Friends, we are clearly in the 1970s. But it is Ayckbourn’s version of the ’70s: he creates a stage world as particular as that of Pinter.
Here then is suburban 1970s England in all its beige and tan glory. Tom Scutt’s design is superbly detailed, down to the mournful cheese plant, the ubiquitous trailing spider plants and the brassy modern clock with its sunray frame. In this well-appointed but joyless domestic interior, sweet-natured Diana has organised a tea party to console a bereaved acquaintance, Colin. Her good intentions start coming unstuck almost immediately, however. All her guests – her bullish husband Paul (Steffan Rhodri), chatterbox friend Marge (Elizabeth Berrington), twitchy John (David Armand) and his sullen wife Evelyn (Kara Tointon) – are reluctant company. Marge’s husband is so reluctant he hasn’t even bothered to come, claiming illness.
As they wait, fretting over what they will say to Colin, the truth about their marriages begins to leak out. We learn that Paul and Evelyn have slept together: a meaningless grapple in the back of his car that has nonetheless scarred both their spouses. We see that childless, quietly sad Marge keeps busy and plays mother to her hypochondriac husband. Into all this nagging unhappiness walks Colin (an irritatingly Tigger-like Reece Shearsmith), remarkably unscathed by losing his fiancée and smugly impervious to the way his memories of his perfect romance are rocking the shaky relationships around him. It is they who feel the agony of lost love.
Structurally, Ayckbourn sets himself the challenge of covering huge emotional distances with sedentary characters and virtually no plot. This creates problems, with both playwright and director over-signalling awkward moments. But, stereotypes and contrived moments notwithstanding, the play drives through to a desolate truth, and Herrin and his excellent cast convey the corrosive effect of disillusionment. Katherine Parkinson is outstanding as Diana, the woman gradually imploding in an empty marriage, with Elizabeth Berrington running her a close second as brave-faced Marge, clearing up the mess.