“Oo-ooh, Aa-aah, precious moments…” so goes the opening line of the famous Three Degrees song that closes Absent Friends, though painful moments may be a more apt description of this poisonous party.
On the stage of the Harold Pinter theatre we find six ‘friends’ who seem to have less in common than our digital age and the Tom Scutt-designed 70s set which comes complete with sunburst clock that looks down on proceedings.
Why this collection of characters with more baggage than Heathrow on a busy day would ever have wanted to see each other is a conundrum, yet they do for the sake of old pal Colin who recently lost a fiancé. Nothing helps grief, it seems, like tea, finger sandwiches and bickering. I hope never to find myself at such a gathering of the damned.
It’s unlikely I ever will, as Ayckbourn’s play is set in an era where feminism might still be considered a dirty word. Katherine Parkinson’s housewife Di is trapped in a marriage to bullying alpha male Paul with no hope of escape, while Paul does just what he pleases. Elizabeth Berrington’s Marge mothers her husband in place of the child he won’t let her adopt. Only Kara Tointon’s monosyllabic Evelyn, who positively radiates resentment, stands up to her husband and as a result becomes the least likeable of the comedy’s characters.
Yes, it is a comedy. You know what they say about the fine line between that and tragedy. As depressing as this sextet’s lives might be, Ayckbourn is a master at finding the humour in the darkest of corners, as are the cast of sitcom veterans.
There is little funnier than watching a room of people trying to avoid the topic of death, then putting their feet in it with greater regularity than a clumsy centipede, or more cringingly hilarious than awkward pauses in stilted conversation. Ayckbourn shines the harshest of lights on friendships and relationships that meant something once upon a time but ended up far from happily ever after.
Leaving the theatre, it wasn’t with a smile that I greeted the falling snow but, despite the best efforts of Reece Shearsmith’s good-hearted know-it-all Colin, with a deep sadness for the characters with gaping holes in their lives where joy should be. If the play were one of Di’s party offerings, it would be delicious but a trifle depressing.