Absent Friends: BackgroundIn 1973, Alan Ayckbourn wrote his most ambitious work yet with The Norman Conquests trilogy. In the wake of this suburban epic, he wrote a play which was the polar opposite of the trilogy in scale, but was no less ambitious or important in his development as a playwright. Absent Friends would be the first of Alan's fully realised tragi-comedies and one of his most significant plays of the 1970s.
Absent Friends developed from a moment in The Norman Conquests when Alan realised he had taken a positive step in a new direction. At one stage in the trilogy, he needed to write a single scene which had no significance, did not carry the plot forward nor contained any singular revelation. It was a pause in the proceedings with several characters just sitting down and talking. It was, he later admitted, the hardest part of the trilogy to write and the one that scared him the most as he had never attempted such a scene before. Once performed, he was delighted by the reaction to the scene and he decided to write a play entirely driven by six people who just sat down and talked. A play that had little in terms of plot, but was driven entirely by the actions and reactions of six people in a living room. A play in which he notes “nothing happened.” To this he added the element of presenting the play in ‘real time’ (one minute of stage time is equivalent to one minute of the audience’s time). In Alan’s terms, this offered an extreme “close-up” of the play’s themes and characters, which - according to the critic Michael Billington - makes it a play of “ruthless simplicity.”
There is also a very real sense, acknowledged by the playwright, that he was drawing himself in. The Norman Conquests had been a remarkable success but had required an immense amount of work from writing to directing in order to bring it to fruition. For its follow-up, Alan wanted to create something that was diametrically opposite in both style and tone. It was also a risky play dealing as it did with the subject of death, although as Alan has frequently noted, the subject is more "the death of love". He once described Absent Friends to Peter Hall, then Artistic Director of the National Theatre, as “a miniature” and something he was compelled to write following the trilogy.
Considering that Absent Friends is considered a classic Ayckbourn of the period, it is worth noting that it had two very different receptions. Alan had written the play in May 1974 and it was premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 30 June directed by himself. It received unanimously positive press. The audience reaction was very positive too and Alan’s biographer, Paul Allen, notes it demonstrated Alan’s ability to hold “an audience’s attention without a dazzling plot or an innovative narrative device or a bombardment of comedy.” This is vital to consider in light of what happened when the play transferred to London. One of the major recurring problems of studying Alan Ayckbourn's plays is the emphasis put on the London productions and the reaction to them. This is understandable, but fails to appreciate the relationship Alan has with the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, and the importance it has to him as writer and director. Alan premieres his plays in Scarborough in the venue they are conceived for (i.e. the round). He has complete control over the casting and directs the play, again worth emphasising, predominantly in the intimacy of the round. The world premiere is not a try-out for London or other venues, it is the play produced as the playwright intends; often it is considered the definitive version of the play. When it transfers to London, even with Alan directing, it is frequently a large step away from his original vision - rarely with the cast he would ideally choose and almost never in a suitable venue. In many cases, this has not necessarily affected the success of the play or how it was perceived; with Absent Friends it did.
Alan's regular London producer Michael Codron had optioned the play for the West End immediately after it opened in Scarborough and there was a relatively quick turn-around. The play opened 13 months after premièring in Scarborough whilst Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests were still running in London. With five plays running simultaneously in the West End, Alan had set a new record.* But, critically, it also meant Absent Friends was sharing the same spotlight as two of Alan's most notable West End successes.
Eric Thompson, who had so successfully tackled Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests, was brought in to direct Absent Friends and he assembled a notable cast which included Richard Briers as Colin and Peter Bowles as Paul. The play opened at the Garrick Theatre on 23 July 1975 and was met with a frosty reception from the critics; the cast received plaudits, the play did not. It was a response that Alan largely shared himself, later saying he did not care for the London production. What seems obvious in hindsight was the play struggled to move from the tiny space it was intended for, to a large proscenium arch theatre such as the Garrick. Alan once described Absent Friends as an almost voyeuristic play with the audience practically eavesdropping on events and that it was best suited to intimate spaces, not the cavernous spaces of the West End. Only the noted critic Harold Hobson, one of the most influential critics writing at the time, was very taken by the play: “If it is the saddest and most moving thing he has written, it is also the most clear-sighted and the funniest.”
Absent Friends would run for a respectable nine months in London, but could not compare in success to Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests. With Alan and Andrew Lloyd Webber's doomed musical Jeeves closing after just a month also in 1975, it was a significant time for Alan in London and must have played a large part in Alan's increasingly uncomfortable relationship with the West End. It would also mark the last time Eric Thompson would direct one of Alan's play in the West End. Change was coming.
Running concurrent with the period from Alan writing Absent Friends to its West End staging was a correspondence between the playwright and Peter Hall, Artistic Director of the National Theatre. Hall wanted Alan to write a new play for the soon to open new home of the National Theatre on London's South Bank. He very much admired Absent Friends and showed considerable interest in staging it until it was confirmed that Michael Codron was taking the play into London. The enthusiasm with which Hall pursued the play and Alan can only have re-enforced Alan's perception after the critical reaction to Absent Friends and Jeeves that there must be a better way to transfer his work to London. He agreed to write a new play for the National Theatre with Bedroom Farce premiering in 1977. This began a period of 14 years where the London premieres of his plays would be roughly evenly split between the National Theatre and the West End.
Both Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests had also had successful transfers to America and there was some early interest in taking Absent Friends over too, but its initial American production did not even reach New York. It would not play in New York until a subsequent revival in February 1991 by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the City Center Stage which featured Brenda Blethyn (winning the Theatre World Award for her portrayal of Diana), Peter Flechette and in her first major professional theatre role, Gillian Anderson. The young actress followed the play soon afterwards by stepping into the role of Agent Scully in the hugely successful and long-running conspiracy television series The X Files.
In 1977, Absent Friends was adapted for radio for the BBC World Service by Peter King, an actor who had worked with Alan previously. Correspondence (or the lack of it) suggests the play was adapted without Alan's approval or possibly even knowledge as it was reduced to a running time of 60 minutes; Alan has consistently opposed the shortening of his plays for radio and television. The adaptation starred David Jason and Miriam Margoyles and when it was brought to Alan's attention in 1978 by the director, Dickon Reed, Alan politely but firmly refused to let the adaptation be broadcast further, having had enquiries about repeating it from BBC Radio 4. This version was apparently released on vinyl (possibly through the BBC's transcription service), but this is a genuine Ayckbourn rarity, and it has rarely been broadcast since 1974 and has now been withdrawn from future broadcast.
More successful was the BBC's 1985 television adaptation which is fondly remembered for Julia McKenzie's performance as Diana (and which played a pivotal part in securing her the role of Susan in the West End production of Woman In Mind). It is a rare occasion when Alan was satisfied with the adaptation of one of his plays to television. It was also notable for featuring a rare television appearance by Tom Courtenay as Colin (who had previously reprised his West End role of Leonard for the television adaptation of Time And Time Again). Although not a perfect adaptation of the play, it remains one of the strongest television adaptations, although - unfortunately - it has never been released commercially.
The reputation of Absent Friends was solidified once it was released for general production for both professionals and amateurs. It quickly became a favourite and has become one of the most frequently produced Ayckbourn plays since. Alan himself returned to the play in 1997 reviving it at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. The role of Evelyn was given to the actress Tamzin Outhwaite in her first major acting role. Soon after she would get a high profile part in the long-running soap opera EastEnders and go on to even further success on screen and stage.
A second chance for Absent Friends in the West End was finally realised in 2011, when it was announced a revival of the play would open at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in January 2012, directed by Jeremy Herrin and produced by Sonia Friedman. The play was a critical success and Alan Ayckbourn has frequently noted it sits alongside Matthew Warchus's 2008 revival of The Norman Conquests as setting the bar for other Ayckbourn revivals to follow.
Absent Friends remains one of Alan's favourite plays - in no small part due to how it initially was treated in London; he always favours the plays he feels have been treated less well than others - and it stands as one of his most significant plays of the 1970s. It is the first play which is undoubtedly of the tragi-comedy genre that Alan is most associated with and it clearly demonstrated that Alan required no more than six people in a single room to create captivating and challenging drama.
*The previous record for the most number of plays running simultaneously in the West End was set in 1908 when Somerset Maugham had four plays running concurrently.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.