Absent Friends: West End Reviews

Absent Friends is very notable for the difference between the reception it received for its world premiere in Scarborough in 1974 and its West End premiere in 1975; it could almost be two different plays! And perhaps it was, for the almost voyeuristic in-the-round intimacy of the original production, directed by Alan Ayckbourn with an ensemble company, became in London a star-driven production in a vast, unsuitable proscenium arch theatre. Following the production, Alan Ayckbourn noted how the West End production did not work and lost so much of his original intentions. It was only in 2012 with Jeremy Herrin's production of Absent Friends, that the West End finally got a production which truly reflected the author's original intent. Below are reprinted extracts from some of the major reviews of the West End premiere of the play in 1975.

Daily Express (Herbert Kretzmer)
Absent Friends is almost fatally slow in starting and limps to its close. But in between, happily, much of the old Ayckbourn magic works again. Death may be a valid subject for laughter, but the play has a serious underpinning theme bout the emotional repressions of the British."

Daily Mail (Jack Tinker)
"If we laugh less, it is because this is his [Ayckbourn's] most cruel incision into the heart of southern suburbia…."

Daily Telegraph (Eric Shorter)
"An exceptionally sharp and ironical occasion for adding to his studies of alienated English middle-class wedlock. It is in a sense his most serious play so far, though it seldom lets our faces stay straight for long."

Evening News (Felix Barker)
"No plot. No character development. No dramatic climaxes. No surprise denouements….
Absent Friends suffers from an absent play, but such is the author's quality that there is laughter even in an apparent vacuum."

Evening Standard (Milton Shulman)
Absent Friends is a much more flimsy effort than either The Norman Conquests or Absurd Person Singular. Indeed at times it seems to be on the verge of coming to a paralytic halt. But his [Ayckbourn's] sense of the absurd is always acute enough to make us chuckle, often heartily at the unease and awkwardness of the English being sociable."

Financial Times (Michael Coveney)
"The play is deceptively straightforward. It is also consistently and cruelly funny….. The play amounts to an undeniably gritty and purgative theatrical experience, a comedy of quality that is far superior to the general run of recent West End fare."

The Guardian (Michael Billington)
"I find his [Ayckbourn's] latest comedy
Absent Friends, funny, tart, clever and well-observed, it does't have the breath-taking ingenuity of The Norman Conquests or the social richness of Absurd Person Singular. Judged by anyone else's standards, it's good: judged by Ayckbourn's own it's something less than a breakthrough."

The Listener (John Elsom)
"Ayckbourn has built another small masterpiece. The characters are convincing, their dialogue terse and neat, and when they are all together on stage, you cannot ignore any one of them."

The Observer (Robert Cushman)
"The play's success lies with the married people; Mr Ayckbourn takes an excessive time to set them up, but their collective presence (individually, none of them goes very deep) produced comedy of an unsettling, even saddening kind. There are no belly-laughs, but there is tension."

Punch (Barry Took)
"The long and short of
Absent Friends is - if you like Richard Briers go and see it, if you like Alan Ayckbourn, don't."

The Stage (Philip Glassborow)
"To be fair to the play, I feel sure Eric Thompson's production is on the wrong plane. Unlike Ayckbourn's other comedies, comedies of manners mostly, this is a study in embarrassment on a very small scale. It needs infinitely delicate and intimate playing and instead it has been presented very much as
The Norman Conquests Part Four."

Sunday Telegraph (Frank Marcus)
"It is heartening, indeed, to see Alan Ayckbourn stretching his talent in new directions and refusing to rest on his laurels. His lack of compassion for his characters makes
Absent Friends a somewhat chilling experience."

Sunday Times (Harold Hobson)
"It is Mr Ayckbourn's finest play, and if it is the saddest and most moving thing that he has written, it is also the most clear-sighted and the funniest. It makes greater demands on the emotional maturity and perceptiveness of its audience than any of Mr Ayckbourn's previous work."

The Times (Irving Wardle)
"There are limits to the fun that can be extracted from an English tea party, and Alan Ayckbourn has hit them in this woefully limp return to his former scene of triumph."

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.