It’s not just the number of laughs that impresses in Jeremy Herrin’s knockout production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Absent Friends,” it’s the length of them. The characterization of these nightmare thirtysomething husbands and wives is so wonderfully and dreadfully recognizable that audiences find themselves helpless in response to a comic moment but also to the situation as a whole. And considering that the real-time action covers a tea-party arranged to console a friend who has just suffered a terrible bereavement, that’s some achievement.
The production’s governing principle is immediately apparent the moment the curtain rises on Tom Scutt’s meticulously researched 1974 design. Yes, the home of Diana (Katherine Parkinson) and Paul (Steffan Rhodri) is an exactly in-period melange of orange, beige and brown and the women are wearing the traditionally terrifying amount of blue eye-shadow, but no, they are not using any of it to signal caricature.
That also applies to the perfectly balanced cast who, in resisting every opportunity to play for laughs, find more by playing truth in a giddy catalogue of social embarrassment.
At the start, these seem to spring simply from Ayckbourn’s famously acute observation of behavior. Diana has arranged a tea for former pal Colin, whom she and her friends haven’t seen for ages. But as they wait for him to appear, tensions rise unbidden, not least via Evelyn (mischievously sullen Kara Tointon), who is profoundly bored by the prospect of the gathering, threateningly silent and coming off a spot of extra-marital sex with Paul.
However, determined to ease the atmosphere is dependable Marge, played by Elizabeth Berrington, in splendid form, as a woman coping with everything except a tyrannical husband who is semi-permanently unwell at home.
Rhodri’s impressively taut, self-made-man Paul doesn’t bother with passive aggression; he just insists everyone play by his rules. If he hasn’t remembered being told about this party, then that’s Diana’s fault and he’s having no part of it. Nor is he particularly interested in the business plans of Evelyn’s permanently on-edge husband John (ideally nervy David Armand), who is trying to keep smiling about his wife’s complete disdain for him.
Lastly, in comes Colin (Reece Shearsmith) who, despite the recent sudden drowning of his fiance, turns out to be preternaturally cheery. Shearsmith glows with the “knowledge” that Colin will be forever sustained by the perfection of his short-lived partnership.
That reversal of expectation is the play’s masterstroke. Ayckbourn allows Colin to brim with self-satisfaction that completely unseats the assembled company. And with the zeal of the new convert, Colin is horribly – and hilariously – keen to “share” his happiness by examining everyone else’s fractured relationships beneath the glow of his happiness.
The presence of Colin seriously ups the comedy quotient, but it’s also a catalyst for the revelations of the lives of quiet desperation they’re all leading, all handled with superb restraint. This is not one of those plays in which everyone in turn comes to a sentimental understanding of their plight. Indeed, these characters barely glimpse their unacknowledged tragedies, let alone articulate them. Yet because audiences perceive it all with full dramatic force, the effect is heartbreaking.
The exception to this is woman-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown Diana. With Ayckbourn at his most daringly Chekhovian, he spins a high tragedy via the comic absurdity of Diana wanting to look like a Canadian Mountie. It’s the play’s most audacious and challenging scene and, ricocheting between sweetly remembered youth and the horror of lost hope, powerful thesp Parkinson makes the audience roar with laughter and cuts them dead with her pain as her veneer cracks.
Although immensely popular in the 1970s, Ayckbourn has often suffered critical disregard. The Tony-winning transfer of his trilogy “The Norman Conquests” and now Herrin’s pin-sharp production should finally return him to enthusiastic favor.