×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Absent Friends

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.

With:
Diana - Katherine Parkinson
Evelyn - Kara Tointon
Marge - Elizabeth Berrington
Paul - Steffan Rhodri
John - David Armand
Colin - Reece Shearsmith

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.

Absent Friends

Harold Pinter Theater, London; 796 seats; £49.50 $78.50 top

Production: A Sonia Friedman Productions and Bob Bartner presentation of a play in two acts by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Jeremy Herrin.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Tom Scutt; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Ian Dickinson for Autograph; production stage manager, Nicholas Bromley. Opened, reviewed Feb. 9, 2012. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: Diana - Katherine Parkinson
Evelyn - Kara Tointon
Marge - Elizabeth Berrington
Paul - Steffan Rhodri
John - David Armand
Colin - Reece Shearsmith

More Legit

  • Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to

    Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to Be This Timely

    When Paula Vogel began writing “Indecent” in 2010, she had no idea how resonant its exploration of immigration woes, anti-Semitism and homophobia in the past century would become in the current political climate. The Tony-nominated play, running until July 7 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater, traces the theatrical history of 1907 Yiddish play “God of Vengeance” [...]

  • Bitter Wheat review

    West End Review: John Malkovich in David Mamet's 'Bitter Wheat'

    How soon is too soon? Hardly a year had passed since allegations against Harvey Weinstein were made public before David Mamet announced that his satire on the subject, “Bitter Wheat,” was set to star John Malkovich in the West End. Six months later, we’re sat watching a corpulent, super-rich movie mogul — Barney Fein (cough, [...]

  • Batman Julia Roberts Spike Lee

    Batman, Julia Roberts, Spike Lee Among 2020 Walk of Fame Honorees

    Batman, Julia Roberts and Spike Lee are among the names selected to be inducted into the 2020 Walk of Fame. The full list of honorees was announced by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s Walk of Fame Selection Committee via an exclusive livestream by Variety. Chosen from hundreds of nominees during a selection meeting in June, [...]

  • Tracy Letts

    Tracy Letts' Comedy 'The Minutes' to Hit Broadway in 2020

    Playwright Tracy Letts’ comedy “The Minutes” will hit the Broadway stage in Feb. 2020. “The Minutes,” written by actor, producer and playwright Letts, is a comedy taking a look at the current state of American politics through the lens of a small, fictional town called Big Cherry. The play is set in a city council [...]

  • Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer

    Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer of MWM Live (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jamie Forshaw has been named executive producer of MWM Live, Variety has learned. The theater veteran most recently served as VP of production for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. In his new role, he will oversee MWM Live’s slate of stage productions with an emphasis on expanding the division’s work on Broadway. MWM Live [...]

  • A Midsummer Night's Dream review

    London Theater Review: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

    “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” can be many things. There are earthy “Dreams,” airy “Dreams,” saucy “Dreams” and sweet “Dreams.” It’s Shakespeare’s most malleable play. Nicholas Hytner’s new staging strives to set itself apart, plunging its immersive audience into a festival-style fairy kingdom and casting the ethereal, white-blonde Gwendoline Christie (fresh off “Game of Thrones”) as [...]

  • Audra McDonald Frankie and Johnny

    Listen: How Audra McDonald Faced Her Fear in 'Frankie and Johnny'

    When producers offered Audra McDonald a role in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” opposite Michael Shannon, she immediately said yes. Then she remembered the nude scene. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “Hell, yes, there was trepidation,” the Tony-winning actress said on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. “I was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content