As Brits we are defined by our ‘stiff upper lip’ – our inability to show any emotions and a permanent fear of being embarrassed. This may never truly change, yet somewhere in amongst all of this, we enjoy ‘awkward’ humour, a style of comedy that allows us to laugh and cringe at the same time. Shows like Rising Damp, The Office and Fawlty Towers remain popular because as a nation we love to laugh when we shouldn’t.
Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends is of the gentler type of awkward humour – it’s painful to watch, but it doesn’t offend or insult anyone. Perhaps a little old-fashioned, the story is still pretty relevant more than 40 years after it was written. Marriage is still the wont of society and often loveless or difficult. People continue to have affairs and still put up a front when talking to their friends.
In this ‘comedy of embarrassment’ five friends await the arrival of another old friend whom they haven’t seen in three years. As they sit in the fantastic replica of a 70s home, expectations are varied, but when Colin (Ashley Cook) finally does arrive, he is blissfully unaware of how his presence will affect the group’s dynamic.
Neurotic Diana (Catherine Harvey) is stuck at home all alone convinced her husband Paul (Kevin Drury) is having an affair with sullen socially inept Evelyn (Kathryn Ritchie), who is married to hyperactive John (John Dorney). Meanwhile, poor Marge (Alice Selwyn) has an ill husband at home, but still tries to keep the peace between her friends, ultimately putting her foot in it every time she opens her mouth. Colin on the other hand moved away and fell in love and even though his fiancé drowned a few months earlier, seems happier than the others put together.
As tempers fray and secrets come out, the characters realise that nothing is as it seems, and those who appear to have everything are less happy than those who have lost everything.
While the story and script of Absent Friends are funny (and awkward) the acting in this production lets it down. Kathryn Ritchie has good facial expressions and body langauge, but vocally seems to be impersonating Marge Simpson; although this is unique, it doesn’t portray her bored, sullen character as well as others have done so.
Alice Selwyn is hilarious as Marge, with the perfect characterisation of a well-meaning lady who tries her best, but doesn’t mange it very well and Ashley Cook is a nice addition to the status quo of the group with his totally different perspective on life. While individually the cast could be stronger, the overall awkwardness in the room is clear to everyone and the dynamic within their group is excellent.
I laughed and I cringed, although sadly more of the latter. However, this is a good production, that sadly just felt a little lacking in energy.
Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes
Photo: Sheila Burnett
Absent Friends is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 20 June 2015. For more information and to book tickets click here