Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

cast absent

In rehearsal - with no friends absent! Kelly Tye as Evelyn, left, Sheila Knapman as Marge, Robert Hicks as John, Andy Tomlinson as Paul, Dave Douglas as Colin and Sharon Clayton as Diana

Absent Friends

Highbury Theatre Centre


Alan Ayckbourn’s real talent is in writing plays about situations and people we all know. All right, we might only be distantly acquainted with them, but they are certainly not complete strangers.

For instance, we all know, or, at the very least, know of a couple where fidelity is perhaps not the only bedfellow in their relationship, marriage, after all, being a prerequisite of adultery - but only for those that way inclined of course.

Then we all know couples who disprove the adage that opposites attract, who go together like a horse and . . . pickled onions perhaps, certainly not a carriage, or people who cannot sit still, or are suspicious of everyone, or who don’t really care about being there and are happy, or miserable enough, to show it.

Thus, we have two and a half couples gathering for a tea party to offer solace and support to Colin, an old friend, who has just lost his fiancée, Carol, in a tragic drowning accident. They have rallied round to cheer him up, lift his spirits, laugh about old times . . . at least that is the plan.

The party is being hosted by Diana, given that nice balance of suspicious efficiency by Sharon Clayton. Di suspects husband Paul is having an affair – which in this case is not a bad shout – and doesn’t really have a good word to say about him, or indeed, not many for her friends either.


Paul is played by Andy Tomlinson, who I remember stepping in at a few days notice to give a superb performance as Gustav in a memorable production of Heroes at the Grange Playhouse last year.  His Paul is a bit of a cheerful bully, hail fellow well met and all that, except, as a successful businessman he likes his own way, and can be obstinate, even if he has to relent – under loudly minuted sufferance - for the sake of good relations with Di. He is a squash fanatic, a successful businessman and an unsuccessful liar. First rule of adultery: make lies about whereabouts to be at least possible.

Evelyn came on the scene after Colin moved away, so is hardly a friend and Kelly Tye makes sure she could never be confused with someone who was even vaguely interested in what is going on. She is like a surly teenager who has never grown out of the habit of truculence – and chewing gum in a bored manner. Her answers usually fall into yes, no, or what?, with a sullen resentment that her reading of any magazine lying around to relieve obvious tedium has been interrupted. Di doesn’t like her, and it shows.

Evelyn has a child, Walter, no I tell a lie, Wayne, who is as miserable as she is, according to its father and her husband, John; a son who is asleep and silent, and Evelyn wants to keep it that way.

John, played with a wonderful array of twitches, idiosyncrasies, hyperventilation and permanently restless legs by Robert Hicks, is a bit like a Jack Russell with worms and fleas which has swallowed half a bottle of amphetamines. He is never still, arms flailing like a windmill in a gale, feet running four-minute miles on the spot. Then there is his phobia about death. Just the mere mention of the word frightens him to  . . . well, death.

It is a remarkable performance demanding total concentration to be jittery and always moving or doing something even when the dialogue or scene does not involve you. He managed enough to be always noticed but not too much to detract from the what was really going on.


John own business depends upon Paul as his biggest, and, one suspects, only real customer, so whatever Paul does is all right with him – business before pleasure is his motto.

Finally, we have that hanging half of the married couples, Marge. Sheila Knapman’s Marge is perhaps the saddest. She is always busy, always looking for things to do, that is when she is not fussing and clucking around husband Gordon like a mother hen. Gordon is supposedly Colin’s best friend, except he is the missing half, he won’t be there as he is ill. This is nothing new apparently. Gordon is always ill. He is either a hypochondriac or the unluckiest bloke in the world, catching anything and everything going. One suspects that by now he has an NHS loyalty card and his own parking space at the doctor’s surgery.

Marge has fed Gordon, once a promising left arm bowler, up to 18st 6lb and mothers him, indeed smothers him, you suspect to compensate for the child she never had.

Which brings us to Colin. The only trouble is that by the time he arrives the charade of happy families is wearing a bit thin, animosity is in the air and Colin, played with a sort of gay abandon, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by Dave Douglas is far from grieving and being in the slough of despond; he is the happiest, cheeriest soul in the room. Carol’s death has given him a new, optimistic outlook on life.

So while they are treading on eggshells around his loss, he is full of life and brimming over with happiness at his memories of Carol, which makes the rest start to sink under the weight of their own miserable lives.

And when he starts to try to solve their problems we are heading for slash your wrists time.

Ayckbourn cleverly and gradually sets the scene as we learn a little about the three couples and their relationships, and slowly, as they wait for Colin, the shiny veneer starts to crack and we see the less than perfect life beneath.


Then good old Colin arrives and with the best of intentions widens the cracks with his crowbar of concern for his old friends. As time passes and resentment and frustration bubbles up, good old Colin, bright and breezy, bids farewell. He didn’t really need any help - sadly the same can no longer be said for those he leaves behind.

It’s funny, cringingly so at times, a hint of pathos here and there, and has the Ayckbourn trademark of acute social observation amid middle class suburbia, it might not be next door, at least not for most of us, but its within walking distance, with a few moments a lot closer to home.

Malcolm Robertshaw’s set places the gathering somewhere in the 1990s, the play first arrived in 1974 but is far from showing its age, while Tom Birkbeck’s lighting design was uncomplicated, basically on and off at the start and end of each set – except a lovely touch as the sky seen though the French windows gradually changes from afternoon sun to twilight and red skied sunset, with the garden slowly darkening - a wonderful attention to detail.

Directed by Sandra Haynes, it is a well-paced, well-acted and well-balance production to set a high bar for the new season It’s a good laugh and a thoroughly entertaining evening – with enough there to give you something to think about the next time you are out with old friends . . . To 22-09-18

Roger Clarke


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