A comedy centred around a bereavement hardly sounds like it’s going to be a barrel of laughs but Absent Friends manages to be both acerbic and painfully funny.
Alan Ayckbourn’s play is brimming with sharp social observations and examines friendships, marriage, old wounds and new and what it means to be truly happy.
Wealthy housewife Diana organises a consolatory tea party for an old friend Colin whose fiancee recently drowned.
But even before Colin’s arrival, the cracks in people’s relationships begin to reveal themselves.
Diana is convinced her husband Paul is having an affair with one of the guests, Evelyn, the wife of his incompetent and fidgety business associate John.
All the performances are superb from the despairing Diana played by Catherine Harvey who captures the character’s unravelling in the face of infidelity perfectly, to the vileness of her bullying husband Paul (Kevin Drury) and the humourous jitteriness of John who gets very uncomfortable when the conversation turns to death.
Evelyn, played wonderfully by Kathyrn Ritchie, steals many of the laughs with her bored, rude, monosyllabic and disinterested responses.
Despite having an unsatisfactory dalliance with Diana’s husband Paul, Evelyn clearly has no guilt as she and her baby Wayne sit in the couple’s home waiting for Colin’s arrival.
Alice Selwyn is the instantly likeable neighbour Marge and she plays her part with great comic timing coming out with hilarious lines such as asking for her tea not to be too strong as she doesn’t want it drowned.
Childless herself, Marge clearly mothers her constantly poorly husband Gordon who we don’t actually see but she keeps taking calls from his sick-bed where he manages to harm himself in all manner of ways.
When Colin finally arrives, it soon becomes clear that despite losing the love of his life tragically, compared to the fractured relationships surrounding him, he is the happiest in the room.
Ashley Cook is tremendous as the bright-eyed and bouncy Colin who is suitably nerdy and insensitive.
He heroically and cheerily tells everyone why despite his loss, he counts himself lucky to have experienced true love even though it was fleeting while the rest of the room to contemplate the failures in their own lives.
As Diana howls about her unfulfilled ambition, the moment of humour is darkened by the bleak despair of her breakdown.
Despite its subject matter, Absent Friends is very funny and gets plenty of laughs. In fact, one audience member found it so hilarious, she tittered loudly throughout that even the cast struggled to maintain a straight face.
This year is Alan Ayckbourn’s 54th as a theatre director and his 56th as a playwright and he has penned 79 plays.
Despite Absent Friends first being shown in June 1974, it still strikes a chord today – especially when it comes to people’s awkwardness and inability in dealing with death.