Absent Friends: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1974. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author. Extracts from reviews of the original West End production can be found here.

Storm Among The Teacups (by Benedict Nightingale)
"It seems to be gradually dawning on us that in Alan Ayckbourn we have a writer worthy of a place in the comic tradition that began when the worshippers in the Towneley Shepherds Play looked in the manger and found, not Christ, but a dead sheep disguised as a baby. His effects, too, have much to do with the misinterpretation of appearances; and they are not always in what we nowadays like to dignify as ‘the best of taste’. Death, in particular, holds no horrors for him. Indeed the most audacious thing he’s yet written is the second act of
Absurd Person Singular, in which a rejected wife is wildly misunderstood as she doggedly attempts suicide.
Someone helpfully cleans the oven into which she’s cramming her head, someone else nearly electrocutes himself mending the light from which she is hanging herself, a third Samaritan begins to replumb the sink where she is swallowing pills. We laugh nervously, perhaps a little guiltily, because the squeamishness and embarrassment we feel about death are being both exploited and undermined; but we laugh all the same. And so we did last week at
Absent Friends, three-quarters of whose hilarity depends on our remembering that the main character is in mourning for a beloved fiancée, lately drowned.
This is played in-the-round in a roughly converted room in the Scarborough public library. Mr Ayckbourn directs a season of plays here every summer and, as the world now knows, uses the occasion to try out his own new work.
Relatively Speaking, Time and Time Again and The Norman Conquests all began the long haul to London from this drab corner; and Absent Friends may be expected to reach the same, presumably desirable destination, though not, alas, with the same, certainly desirable cast. After Scarborough, ‘names’ normally take over the plummier parts, a policy that may have been justified in the case of Absurd Person Singular, superbly played by Sheila Hancock, Richard Briers and others, but turned How the Other Half Loves into a whoopee cushion for the private disportment of Robert Morley’s massive haunches.
If anything so unbalanced happens to a play as good as this one, my column will, I swear, resemble a vomitorium, perhaps even an abattoir. The night I saw it, the present, unfancied cast clearly gave much pleasure to some 200 mainly elderly Yorkshiremen and women, who waddled phlegmatically to their seats, gasped at the authenticity of the sandwiches in Act Two, and became very worried when a character started to knit a jumper: ‘Ooh, look, she’s going to drop a stitch - watch what you’re doing, love.’
It wasn’t a vastly sophisticated audience, but it got most of the jokes and seemed completely unshocked by the subject matter.
John (Stephen Mallatratt) is married to sullen, cynical Evelyn (Eileen O’Brien), Paul (Ronald Herdman) to homey Diana (Heather Stoney); and Paul, as the others now discover, has recently had Evelyn in the back seat of his car. Thus Mr Ayckbourn has created a pretty tense, fraught atmosphere by the time he introduces Colin, the old friend invited in for informal commiseration over the teacups. Some of the subsequent awkwardness is relatively minor.
‘Yes please, but don’t drown it,’ says some-one on being offered milk, and covers her face in horror, making everyone wince.
Colin himself contributes something psychologically constructive but woefully ill-timed about John being the driver in his marriage and Evelyn having to 'spend most of her time in the back seat'. Everyone fidgets and shudders again. But the real catalyst is Colin’s insistent serenity, displayed in all its self-righteousness and vanity by a gifted young actor called Christopher Godwin. He produces photos of his dead fiancée, remarking how privileged he was to know a 'perfect person': 'just because I’ve been deprived of my happiness,' he adds blithely, 'I don’t envy or begrudge you yours.' Half-an-hour of such sanctimony, and they are all feeling very inadequate indeed. And when Colin begins to idealise their characters, and sentimentalise their marriages, the gathering storm finally breaks: recrimination, hysteria, everyone running for cover from the marital hail.
Not very funny, you say? Well, Mr Ayckbourn would largely agree. He has sometimes been called a cold and uncharitable dramatist; but, even if that accusation survives the present London production of
The Norman Conquests (which, in my view, it can’t), Absent Friends should squelch it for good. There is, as usual, much that’s unattractive about his characters - and, in Evelyn, the apathy and callousness of a certain segment of the younger generation is memorably exposed. Mr Ayckbourn is certainly not an amoral writer: nor is he mocking, gloating, or gratuitously unkind.
Compare the play with, say,
Design For Living, and you’ll rapidly see that, unlike Coward, he allows his people to have feelings, that these feelings can be hurt, and that this is cause for regret. Indeed, the evening’s climax comes when the wretched, maudlin Colin tells how Paul once stole Diana’s table napkin, to keep as a memento.
'And now I use it to clean the car,' says Paul irritably at which Diana pours the cream over his head and goes into a long, confused harangue about the evils of marriage before being helped off-stage to what, for a nasty moment, looks like being the madhouse. It is a scene handled with admirable maturity, even depth; and, afterwards you aren’t sure whether the ache in your stomach is caused by laughter or something else. There are few sadder things than the slow destruction of youthful optimism, not to mention love, trust and other tender shoots: Mr Ayckbourn makes sure we realise it.
As I write, it occurs to me that I may be over-reacting to him because I expect so little of 'commercial' playwrights. Certainly, I find it hard to go along with the senior critic who recently pronounced him the most important find since Pinter. And yet who was immeasurably the finest British playwright of the 1890s? Not Pinero, not Jones, not the early Shaw, but Wilde. Who increasingly seems to stand out from the admittedly barren 1920s, '30s and '40s? None but Coward. Comic writing, as Dr Johnson observed, often weathers better than 'serious'; and if that sounds too flighty a claim for a newish, youngish dramatist, Mr Ayckbourn must at least be congratulated on showing us something we’d quite forgotten, that it is possible to write amusingly and intelligently for social categories A, B, C1, C2 and D.
Absent Friends comes to us in a popular form, the 'farcical comedy'; its characters, with their subtopian accents, could hail from almost any terrace or housing estate in the country; its main concerns are common human ones, matching and dispatching; and its plot is exquisitely judged to give these two themes freedom and scope. Because Colin is in mourning, and therefore privileged, the others feel obliged to tolerate his intolerable sallies against their peace of mind. Thus, without any offence to credibility, their marriages can be shown in all their pretension and shabbiness, and their constrained, frightened attitudes to death and bereavement simultaneously satirised. The result is a memorable attack on several varieties of falsehood."
(New Statesman, 5 July 1974)

Absent Friends In Scarborough (by Robin Thornber)
Absent Friends is the fifteenth* new play Alan Ayckbourn has written for the summer season of theatre-in-the-round at Scarborough Library. Last year's Norman Quest [sic] trilogy has been well received in Greenwich and moves into the West End in August; Absurd Person Singular opens on Broadway in the autumn.
How does Mr Ayckbourn keep churning them out and pulling them in? Perhaps it is because he never stands still. From the simple farce of
Relatively Speaking to the split-stage ingenuity of How The Other Half Loves, he develops into a different sort of playwright every year and this season's offering is unlike anything that has gone before.
Superficially, it bears all the Ayckbourn hallmarks - a light comedy of manners and morals, honed with acute social observation, riddled with embarrassing situations, dusted with brittle wit. But they are not what the play's about.
Of course, there's the inevitable Ayckbourn meal. We're in the smart suburban lounge of Paul (Ronald Herdman) and Di (Heather Stoney) with a sandwich and trifle spread under a teacloth on the sideboard.
John (Stephen Mallatratt) and Evelyn (Eileen O'Brien) have come round with Marge (Janet Dale) to meet an old friend they all used to know - Colin (Christopher Godwin) whose fiancée has just drowned. The small talk sets the scene: “Are you having an affair with Paul?" Marge asks in horror of Evelyn. "No," she says, "but we did it in the back of his car one afternoon."
They're all nervous about upsetting Colin, but he's the only one who has come to terms with death. His romantic memories ("Carol was a perfect person") and his invincible, insensitive niceness expose the hypocrisy of the others' miserable marriages and reduce them all to emotional wreckage.
"l only regret," he tells the disillusioned, philandering Paul, “that my relationship with Carol was never able to develop like yours with Di."
There's a breath-taking cheek about it all. Not only the way this production, directed by Alan Ayckbourn, stretches every silence to the verge of fidgeting. But in the way he has us laughing over the last taboo subject, death and the way it embarrasses us.
And the deeper irony is that under the giggles we are faced with the equally unmentionable reality of the death of love.
Absent Friends is not just black comedy - which is usually funnier than gloomy - but bleak comedy, cold, hard and ruthless.
The characters are a little down-market from the usual Ayckbourn crowd - lower-middle rather than middle-middle class - so that we always feel superior, even despise them, and so let ourselves off the hook.
l thought last year's trilogy was a comic masterpiece which would be unworkable anywhere else, which shows how wrong you can be, I cannot see
Absent Friends sweeping the repertory round either, but it is a minor tragedy."
(The Guardian, 19 June 1974)

Scarborough 'Absent Friends'
"Alan Ayckbourn's new comedy, Absent Friends, was as its predecessors, given its premiere in the round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.
It was enthusiastically received, has one set - a sitting room where afternoon tea is laid and friends are waiting to receive Colin, an old and rather tiresome friend they haven’t seen for three years and who has just lost his fiancée Carol, in a drowning accident.
The assembled company, Diana and Paul, at whose home the tea party takes place; John and Evelyn, a young couple with a baby; and Marge, whose husband Gordon could not come because he wasn’t very well, are wondering how Colin will be and are prepared to be very sympathetic towards him in his loss, But Colin arrives full of joie de vivre, proclaiming that he had found the perfect love with Carol and although she has gone - although he feels she is around - he still thinks he is the luckiest man alive to have known her. He then starts telling them about themselves, quite convinced they are as happy as he, which they are not.
Mr Ayckbourn’s mastery of this type of comedy, his insight into human relationships and his pungent and witty dialogue presented by a very talented cast who each give impeccable performances - Heather Stoney, Ronald Herdman, Stephen Mallatratt, Eileen O'Brien, Janet Dale and Christopher Godwin - ensure another success for Mr Ayckbourn."
(The Stage, 27 June 1974)

Helpless Grief Portrayed (by Desmond Pratt)
He has always been a man off the people. Underneath the comic and satirical by-play off his work, Mr. Ayckbourn has a warm sensitivity for humanity with its frustrations, its bewilderment and the sadness that lies in the helplessness of the people who populate his plays.
He has become the shining star of modern playwrights.
Every play of his that has been a West End success has started in this Scarborough theatre, as this new one did last night.
The play is about death. A group of people who knew a young main years before hear that his fiancée has died. As always, the group are mismatched, but they invite him around to cheer him up over tea.
He is perfectly cheerful, however, having enjoyed every moment with the girl.
So they grieve to no avail and faced with this cheerfulness, Mr. Ayckbourn shows the unsatisfied hypocrisy of the hosts.
The cast of six - directed by the author - are excellent and well-differentiated. There is Ronald Herdman’s stoical husband to Heather Stoney’s rebellious wife and Stephen Mallatratt's energetic husband to the lackadaisical cynical wife of Eileen O’Brien.
Janet Dale is the garrulous char-like visitor and as the grieving fiancé, Christopher Godwin has the exuberant style of a confident salesman. He is almost a second 'Alfie'.

Ayckbourn's Amusing New Comedy (by Eric Shorter - extract)
"The mood is orthodox Ayckbourn - social embarrassment, twitchy silences, small talk verging on large. And beneath the jovial often witty surface, there is a painful streak of sly pessimism about marriage more marked than in his previous work. Is it as neat as we are used to? Not yet. Mr Ayckbourn will work on it - especially I hope the ending."
(Daily Telegraph, 18 June 1974)

Ayckbourn Play Funny, But Overlong (extract)
"It lacked a certain pace and verve. While the dialogue was often funny and pointed out, with a delightful understanding, some of our human weaknesses, the evening was over-long."
(Scarborough Evening News, 18 June 1974)

Absent Friends is Alan Ayckbourn's 16th play.

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.