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Absent Friends Reviews

“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, brimming with sharp social observations. 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 Kathryn Ritchie, steals many of the laughs with her bored, rude, monosyllabic and disinterested responses.  Alice Selwyn is the instantly likeable neighbour Marge and she plays her part with great comic timing.  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.”
Aasma Day – Lancashire Evening Post

“Alan Ayckbourn is a prolific writer, with almost 80 plays to his name, and his wry characterisations and witty mastery of phrase rarely fail.  London Classic Theatre, an intelligent and adventurous company, makes its Eastbourne debut in fine style here. Michael Cabot’s direction brings vividly alive a potentially quite dated piece. The set is lovingly recreated with big swirly patterns, lots of detail and all the little trinkets. Catherine Harvey’s hostess Diana has prepared an ample feast of pineapples on sticks, and Kathryn Ritchie’s laconic Evelyn browses magazines with Twelve Tips to Make Your Man Happy. Welcome to 1974. This is no ordinary Ayckbourn, though, despite the familiar domestic setting, the usual complex relationships, and the same sharply comic characters. This time, each of the six players casts a darker shadow. The author actually called Absent Friends “a play about the death of love”, and it treads an awkward path between comedy and pathos. The Seventies colours may be garish, but the acting is uniformly graphic, bold and convincing. The cast have grasped the essence of Ayckbourn. It is comedy of embarrassment, verging sometimes on theatre of cruelty. Manners and conventions are sliced and shredded. You will laugh and wince in equal measure. The marital tangles have a sort of awful equilibrium. Catherine Harvey, overdressed and garrulous, is covering her insecurities and likely to blub at any moment. Husband Paul, perfectly observed by Kevin Drury, is an unreformed chauvinist, playing squash and playing away with Kathryn Ritchie’s gloriously laconic Evelyn. Meanwhile Evelyn’s other half John (John Dorney) is cringingly inept. Remember those silly pouffes and impossible bar stools? Dorney tumbles off both with persistent ease and we squirm with him. Alice Selwyn as Marge – the most sympathetic of this dysfunctional bunch – spends most of the play patching up other people’s squabbles. And old flame Ashley Cook turns up with photo albums and uncomfortable memories. Occasionally the script rambles as characters lapse into over-long monologues. But more often, the quick-fire Ayckbourn dialogue is brilliantly rattled off by actors who have the timing to a tee. It’s far from a tired old revival, this. It’s classic Ayckbourn, and with a dark, extra dimension.”
Kevin Anderson – Eastbourne Herald

“Alan Ayckbourn’s sharply observed comedy drama is given wit, warmth and humanity by London Classic Theatre.  Moved by the sudden loss of their friend Colin’s fiancée, his friend Di throws one of her celebrated tea parties, inviting all his friends over to cheer Colin up. Di’s gesture is, initially, a generous one – until indiscretions and seething disillusionments surface, and a friendly party unravels in spectacular, hysterical fashion. Ayckbourn’s play, set in 1974, plays on the heightened tension caused by the contemporary worries of appearing less than perfect to neighbours and friends. By the end of the play, every character’s truths are revealed, and it is apparent that though they appear to have it all, beneath it nobody is truly happy. This sounds rather depressing for a show, but carefully crafted performances draw us in, encouraging us to root for the characters even as they unravel. Di’s spectacular descent into hysteria is brought to uproarious life by Catherine Harvey. Her husband Paul (a taciturn Kevin Drury) slow burns into denial; Alice Selwyn’s gregarious Marge finds solace in shopping. John Dorney’s overshadowed John forces gaiety into his miserable marriage to Kathryn Ritchie’s admirably unlikeable Evelyn. But all of these characters’ ability to ignore calamity pale compared to Ashley Cook’s bewildered Colin, a man living perpetually through rose-tinted memories of his recent engagement, bereavement, and the past. Here but for the grace of God we go – into this superb comedy of embarrassment, played with real depth by all concerned. A charming, bittersweet, hilarious production.”
Kevin Redfern – Derby Telegraph

“Absent Friends was written when Sir Alan Ayckbourn, one of the world’s most prolific playwrights, is reckoned to have been in his prime as the master of bittersweet suburban comedies. Ayckbourn always excelled at giving us a glimpse through the net curtains and exposing the so-called comedy of embarrassment of suburban life. Written immediately after two of Ayckbourn’s best-loved plays, The Norman Conquest and Absurd Person Singular, Absent Friends exemplifies the Seventies in all of their garish glory, both as a comedy of manners and a visual feast. This London Classic Theatre Company production is ending its national tour in Cheltenham, and is true to the original, reminding us of the joys of a cheese and pineapple hedgehog, shagpile carpet and geometric wallpaper. This play is a typically well-crafted Ayckbourn masterpiece; but in dealing with our social embarrassment around death it is a bleaker subject matter, and there are some well-needed moments of black comedy. This is a cast who know every nuance of their characters. Ashley Cook is a masterclass in enthusiastic over-sharing as Colin, Alice Selwyn a wonderfully gauche and brisk Marge and John Dorney is so convincing in his nervy energy you nearly shout at him to sit still from the stalls. Catherine Harvey has some great scene stealing moments of revenge as a fragile Diana, Kevin Drury as Paul is a convincingly arrogant recipient. And Kathryn Ritchie plays a bravely unlikeable and taciturn Evelyn. Director Michael Cabot ensures that those emotions simmer away, wringing out every ounce of comedy effectively. Love, as the song goes, is a many splendoured thing. This play reminds us that this simply isn’t always the case for everyone. Everyone could benefit from a little Ayckbourn insight and reflection every so often. Catch this one while you can.”
Corrie Bond-French – Gloucestershire Echo ****

“Do I laugh, do I cry? Absent Friends packs a low punch as it reveals the sad undercurrents in the relationships between seven friends. But such is Alan Ayckbourn’s sensitive touch, his wit so smart, his characters writ larger than life, that this play is an entertaining romp. It also makes you reflect on life, love and loyalty among the laughter. The six characters on stage are quickly defined in broad strokes by a talented cast: Diana, beautifully played by Lisa Burrows as the would-be gracious hostess but hiding huge disappointments; the monosyllabic Evelyn (Kathryn Ritchie), whose laconic non-engagement in the party raises lots of laughs; successful bully Paul (Kevin Drury) who makes life difficult for everyone; Marge, whose winsome silliness covering huge sadness, well portrayed by Susie Emmett, left me in that smile/cry dilemma; and John (John Dorney), a tragi-comic who can’t keep still as he tries to cope with disappointments in marriage and work. Then Colin arrives into the mix. He’s the one they are sorry for. Might he turn out to be not so unlucky after all? He (Pete Collis) plays the part perfectly, soft and sweet though not too perceptive about those around him.  More than tea is brewing as they pass round the sandwiches and try to console Colin, while the old jealousies and infidelities continue to simmer beneath the surface before erupting. What a tea party.  This play by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn is being toured once again by London Classic Theatre, whose director Michael Cabot has kept it firmly in its 70s setting. It becomes almost a social commentary on gender relations in that decade, as well as a reflection on love and marriage that finds resonance in any. Ayckbourn spoke of the comedy of embarrassment: a perfect summing up of this play. Well worth seeing.”
Sandra Carter – Bucks Free Press

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