Although Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends is both written and set in the early 1970s, its witty, keen observation of human interaction has not aged a day. It tells the story of three couples attending a dinner party to comfort an old friend whose fiancée has recently drowned, with all the attendant awkwardness – he is perfectly happy discussing his fiancée, blithely ignorant of the extreme discomfort of everyone around him. As one might expect, although there is plenty of tension, this is no easy farce; Colin, the almost-widower, is the only person who is happy in his relationship, and the bitterness that underlies the other marriages soon comes to the fore.

Credit:  Giacomo Giannelli

Claire Evans’s production at the OSO Arts Centre packs in laughs aplenty as the tension builds; an intimate setting like the OSO Arts Centre is exactly right for this play, where its characters are as stifled by the close quarters of the tea party as they are metaphorically by their domestic unhappinesses. The strongest laughs come from the diametrically opposed Marge, played by Bridget Lambert, and Evelyn, played by Liv Koplick. The former’s incessant small talk is balanced by the latter’s monosyllabic responses and a few chief, well-timed disdainful glances, that makes their moment together a real comic high point. The drama of the play, meanwhile, is held together by Polly Smith’s Diana, whose monologue about the Canadian mounted police, odd though it may sound, is the heart of the whole piece and stops it straying into silliness. 

Credit:  Giacomo Giannelli

Stifling though we want it to be, there are times when the script could do with a little breathing room. There is a tendency in this production to build faster and louder to each climactic point, and it certainly works, but there are times when the text feels rushed, and the approach slightly one-note. The tension is so palpable that drawing it out could build it more, perhaps, than instantly pushing it upwards. When the three men are left alone without a thing to say to one another, at least in terms of small talk, we get a taste of that potential, and it seems a shame we don’t see more of it throughout.

Credit:  Giacomo Giannelli

What struck me most, though, is that despite its distinctly period setting, tensions between generations, between social classes and between genders felt strikingly pertinent to the world we live in today. This is no period piece, and is well worth a visit from any generation.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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