Absent Friends is the least technically adventurous of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. Yet Jeremy Herrin’s revival (Harold Pinter Theatre, booking until 14 April) seems determined to display all its workings.
The fact that the action unfolds in real time is thrust in our face with a big clock on the back wall, and an even bigger one on the curtain (lest we forget during the interval). Of the three couples who meet for a reunion, one is flattened into a caricature, with David Armand overplaying John’s fidgetiness, while Kara Tointon’s Evelyn (above) takes taciturnity to an exhibitionistic extreme. And then each awkward conversational pause is held just enough seconds too long for it to seem that the play is acting the actors, not the other way around.
The reason for the reunion is Colin, played with comic brilliance by Reece Shearsmith as a mincing, baggy-trousered, lip-smacking know-it-all. His old friends expect he will be distraught because of his fiancée’s recent death, but he turns out to be the most upbeat of the lot. His sunny reminiscences make the others realise the deficiencies of their own relationships. Diana (Katherine Parkinson), in particular, puts the full extent of her disillusionment into words for the first time. So it seems a shame that, before she can properly begin rediscovering herself, she must succumb to a fit of hysteria and be bundled offstage.
Ayckbourn’s tragicomedy leaves a palpable remainder in the air: though the farce of Colin’s visit plays itself out, the skeletons it digs up are hardly addressed at all.