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Timeless themes in Ayckbourn's 70s classic

Absent Friends, Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth, until February 10.

It may be firmly stuck in its 1970s setting, but this classic Alan Ayckbourn play deals with some timeless themes and emotions.

The Talisman’s production is spot on with the 70s set, costumes and hair, and the six-strong cast throw in some good performances in this comedy, set in one living room (complete with bar), and playing out in real time just short of two hours.

Friends gather for a tea laid on for Colin, a friend who moved away and whose fiancée has drowned. But tensions aren’t even below the surface here: Di (played as suitably tightly-wound by Katie-Anne Campbell), is trying to get cool Evelyn (Paige Phelps with a great sneer and air of cynicism), to admit to an affair with her husband Paul, played by Phil Spencer as a very TV show 1970s Lothario.

He gets criticism for his performance in bed (or back of the car) from Evelyn, who is at least constant in showing everyone disdain.

Marge (Caroline McCluskey with a suitably motherly air) is constantly on the phone to her ill husband, the much-talked about Gordon, and Evelyn’s husband John (the never-still Martin Donaldson) just wants to placate everyone.

It takes the arrival of Colin (Matt Baxter), surprisingly cheerful after his loss, to reveal some home truths and shake everyone up and make them realise they may be more alone than he is – or will be if they are not careful.

One scene where everyone is talking at once in frenetic interplays needed some more dominant voices to come out of the mayhem, but generally it is a well-timed, well-performed, funny and thought-provoking performance.

For tickets go to:

*Pictured (left to right) are cast members Katie-Anne Campbell, Matt Baxter, Phil Spencer, Martin Donaldson, Paige Phelps, and Caroline McCluskey.

And another view, from Peter McGarry..

....At a basic level, it could be acceptable as a routine domestic comedy. But Alan Ayckbourn’s 1974 play, from a period when the author was at his darkest and funniest best, is anything but routine. It explores, with gleeful tongue in cheek, aspects of human nature which would in the real world be quickly swept under the carpet. Two performances in an otherwise lacklustre production come near to saving the day. Matt Baxter’s Colin breezes in on a note of cheery optimism and through some nicely-judged playing underpins the irony of what can best be seen as role reversal. The character’s own form of insensitivity outshines the well-intended, fumbling support of his social circle. Of the gathered friends, Caroline McCluskey’s outwardly ebullient Marge effectively displays her own inner demons of having to exert her mothering instincts solely on a permanently sickly husband. The others go through the motions of intermingled relationships without flair or subtlety. Ayckbourn cleverly creates comedy chaos, but it never becomes farce. His characters, under a thinly humorous veneer, suffer varying degrees of embarrassment and sadness. Without this kind of depth, we’re back to the routine – and the dull.

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