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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
ABSENT FRIENDS
at Harold Pinter Theatre

FINGER FOOD AND HAND GRENADES
By JOHN NATHAN

  (L to R) Katherine Parkinson, Reece Shearsmith and Elizabeth Berrington/ Ph: Simon Annand

Though the food is only sandwiches, the drink merely tea, Alan Ayckbourn’s excruciating 1974 study of suburban misery could fairly be described as an example of the dinner party play, the kind of drama in which manners fly out of the window and civility hides terrified behind the sofa.
 
The tone is set early on when hostess Diana makes polite conversation with her already-arrived first guest Evelyn, who impassively listens to Diana’s musings about marriage. Evelyn could understand her husband having an affair, she says, as long as he didn’t lie about it. And she could even tolerate her husband’s lover being a friend, but she too would have to be honest. It is at this point that we realize the idol chat is actually an accusation directed at Evelyn who, unfazed, carries on reading her magazine and chewing gum.
 
There are many more elephants placed in the room by Ayckbourn. All eventually prove too big to ignore. The marriage between Evelyn (Kara Tointon) and John (David Armand) is as dysfunctional as that between Paul (Steffan Rhodri) and Diana (Katherine Parkinson). Domestic life is far from bliss even for Marge (Elizabeth Berrington), whose housebound husband regularly telephones with updates of his latest illness. And then we have Colin in whose honour the tea party is being held. Several months previously his fiancée drowned, though as with everyone else’s troubles, it is perhaps best not to mention the tragedy. So when words such as "death" and "drown" are inadvertently used, they hang in the air like a bad smell.
 
Ayckbourn’s play is rooted in an English culture before Oprahfication. Emotionally raw subjects such as betrayal, disappointment and death were to be avoided. This makes the subject's emergence all the more painful, excruciating and, this being Ayckbourn, funny too. The period is terrifically evoked by Tom Scutt’s design of the living room in which all the action takes place. It should be preserved as a museum of 1970s style.
 
If Jeremy Herrin’s pitch-perfect production is agony to watch, it is agony for all the right reasons. These are people who have spent a lifetime trying to say the right thing and now here comes Colin, the cheery guest (despite his loss) played by Reece Shearsmith. It's a persona Sheersmith used well while playing the hero chiropodist in the musical Betty Blue Eyes. Here his well-meaning, cardigan-clad Colin unwittingly lobs verbal hand grenades into the polite conversation. A vandal couldn't do a better job.
 
Sheersmith is the pick of a terrific cast, though I wish that Tointon, best known as a soap star and who recently made her stage debut in Pygmalion, reined in the gratuitous rudeness of her Evelyn a tad. If she did she would be just as cruel and slightly more believable.
 
But the real star is the author. Ayckbourn can feel awfully dated or, as is the case here, utterly timeless. Attitudes about emoting in company may have changed, but character types do not. And as is so often the case with Ayckbourn, you know his characters all too well. In two hours – the running time of both the production and the tea party – deceptions are revealed and unpeeled, leaving all the protagonists painfully and hilariously exposed. Which just goes to show that Ayckbourn is not only a master of the real time play, but the dinner party play too. 

 


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