The Theatreguide.London Review
Harold Pinter Theatre Winter-Spring 2012
I first understood that there was something very special about Alan Ayckbourn in the second act of Absurd Person Singular, when I realised I was laughing hysterically at a deeply unhappy woman trying to kill herself. There's a similar hey-wait-a-minute moment in 1974's Absent Friends, when the comic climax of the play is a character's complete mental and emotional breakdown.
Ayckbourn was such a funny writer from the start of his career that it took us a while to see that he was also a deeply serious one, and that he wrote comic plays that, with the slightest shift in tone, could just as easily have been tragic. Absent Friends is a prime example, and therefore a very significant as well as very entertaining play.
It's one of his Typhoid Mary plays, in which an innocent character, with all the good will in the world, makes everyone else aware of how unhappy they are. In this case it's Colin, whose fiancée has died, and whose friends gather to console him.
Even before he arrives, their anxious preparations expose some fault lines in their marriages and friendships, but it's when he gets there, surprisingly happy and innocently assuming that they're all as content and well-adjusted as he, that things start crumbling.
And it's all very, very funny until those catch-you-up-short moments when you recognise the real unhappiness beneath the comedy.
Ayckbourn fans will know what I mean, and might also recognise some other familiar tropes, like the never-seen comic offstage character, the husband either innocently blind or coldly dismissive of his wife's unhappiness, and the woman desperately avoiding self-awareness in compulsive domesticity.
Jeremy Herrin is quoted in the programme as saying that he tried not to think about comedy while directing the play, following the mantra 'Be truthful and funny will come', and the play and performances find all the humour because they find the characters and reality first.
In a cast largely made up of familiar television faces, Reece Shearsmith as Colin and Katherine Parkinson as the harried hostess stand out.
And did I mention that it is very funny?
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Review - Absent Friends - Pinter Theatre 2012