Magazine article Variety

Absent Friends

Magazine article Variety

Absent Friends

Article excerpt

LEGIT ABRUAD

Absent Friends

HAROLD PINTER THEATER

London; 796 seats; £49.50 ($78.50) top

By David Benedict

It's not just the number of laughs that impresses in Jeremy Herrtu's knockout production of Alan Ayckbourn's "Absent Friends," it's the length of them. The characterization of these nightmare thirtysomething husbands and wives is so wonderfully and dreadfully recognizable that authences find themselves helpless not only in response to a comic moment but also to the situation as a whole. And considering that the realtime action covers a tea party arranged to console a friend who has just suffered a terrible bereavement, that's some achievement.

The production's governing principle is immediately apparent the moment the curtain rises on Tom Scutt's meticulously researched 1974 design. Yes, the home of Diana (Katherine Parkinson) and Paul (Steffan Rhodri) is an exactly in-period melange of orange, beige and brown, and the women are wearing the traditionally terrifying amount of blue eye-shadow, but no, they are not using any of it to signal caricature.

That also applies to the perfectly balanced cast who, in resisting every opportunity to play for laughs, find more by playing truth in a giddy catalogue of social embarrassment.

At the start, the humor seems to spring simply from Ayckbourn's famously acute observation of behavior. Diana has arranged a tea for former pal CoUn, whom she her friends haven't seen for ages. But as they wait for him to appear, tensions rise unbidden, not least via Evelyn (mischievously sullen Kara Tointon), who is profoundly bored by the prospect of the gathering, threateningly silent and having just had a bit of extra-marital sex with Paul.

Determined to ease the atmosphere is dependable Marge, played by Elizabeth Berrington, in splendid form, as a woman managing to cope with everything life throws at her, except for her tyrannical husband, who is semipermanently unwell at home.

Rhodri's impressively taut, selfmade-man Paul doesn't bother with passive aggression; he just insists everyone play by his rules. If he hasn't remembered being told about this party, then that's Diana's fault, and he's having no part of it. Nor is he particularly interested in the business plans of Evelyn's permanently on-edge husband John (ideally nervy David Armand), who tries to keep smiling through his wife's complete disdain for him.

Lastly, there's Coiin (Reece Shearsmith) who, despite the recent sudden drowning of his fiance, turns out to be preternaturally cheery. …

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