Production: Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn
Directors: Charles Rivington and Sarah Gordon
Venue: Drama Barn
Date:8th May 2009.
What is it about the Seventies, those beige and benighted years, that so appeals to the young directors of Dramasoc, and indeed to their audiences? Absent Friends is, if memory serves, the third production very much of its time and place that has been performed in the Barn within the past year, following successful, sell-out runs of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus and another Ayckbourn staple, Bedroom Farce. It puzzled me slightly that the freshman team of Charles Rivington and Sarah Gordon, with their directorial bow here, should follow suit. Is it merely a matter of retrospective chic, I wondered, this interest in the decade of flared trousers, television commercials and monotone interior design? Or is there something more compelling, something crucial to be wrought from these tales of middle-aged-middle-class morality, that play out awkwardly amongst the standard lamps, shag piles and three-piece suites? Perhaps, perhaps: for Ayckbourn’s drama of that period has a definite fin de siécle feel, peopled by those left bemusedly reeling in the wake of a social revolution. Hunter Thompson remains the most convincing advocate of Sixties youth in saying that ‘there was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.’ What must it feel like to no longer feel like that, to never again be so brimming with such bounteous possibility? Absent Friends is a play of thwarted passions along these lines, its characters ciphers indicating an end of aspiration, the forcible neglect of memory and the death of sentiment.
Di (Cat Smith) and her bullish, bullying husband Paul (Michael Wilkins) play host to moody Evelyn (Veronica Hare), her blandly bloke-ish husband John (Jamie Salazaar) and upwardly-mobile Marge (Lauren Whitehead). There is a tea party, but no attendant occasion, just a group of old friends getting together. What strikes the audience as incongruous, from the off, is a twofold concern: namely that the characters don’t like each other and have absolutely nothing of import to say. There are reasons for this hostility; Evelyn and Paul have had it off (one feels that these people would be incapable of ‘making love’) in the back of his car, and what’s more, the neurotic Di knows it. Evelyn’s Jilted John is a wannabe power-broker, an impotent necrophobic with a car fixation, who seems to even try the patience of perky socialite Marge. Everything changes with the arrival of socially awkward Colin (Dan Wood), a vision of studied banality in cardie and horn-rimmed specs, a nascent Dr. Freud in every way, barring the absence of some truly memorable facial hair. Colin is different because he likes these people, all of them, and he likes to talk to them; about his fiancé, tragically deceased, and about the good times that they have all enjoyed together. As the party degenerates around him, the flimsy alliances splintering and prejudices surfacing like so much driftwood, Colin is a reminder that whilst nostalgia is often justifiably maligned, it is folly indeed to snub the lessons of our personal histories. The past conceals vital parts of ourselves; scattered fragments of what we once were and are free to become again. We all contain the fusing codes for a better, more idealistic future.
There were memorable turns; Cat Smith for one, lumbered with much of the play’s hysterical heartland, was a believably jittery hausfrau. It was the performances of Wood and Hare that were doubly reassuring, though, their night’s work convincing this reviewer that the society’s future rests in safe hands. Hare, following her gallant debut in last year’s What the Butler Saw, proved once again wonderfully adept at colouring the gaps between lines (given Evelyn’s propensity for the maudlin, there were many of these). Her sheer physical presence makes a riddle of silence, and her Evelyn articulated the perfect riposte to the era’s complacent capitalist settlement; that material is no antidote in itself to boredom and crushing inertia. Wood’s Colin provided the alpha to Hare’s omega, and completely stole the show; a nervy, twittering chatterbox, his cheery optimism forces him to hold a mirror before his unhappy friends, only to reveal no reflection. The ones he loves are like Eliot’s ‘hollow men’, stuffed with nothing more than an empty notion of their own self-worth.
Charles Rivington and Sarah Gordon are to be commended in their direction for helping me to appreciate the light; I don’t necessarily like Ayckbourn more, but I do understand him better. If their show was not a complete success, it is because they failed in that largely indefinable task of creating an atmosphere of ‘ensemble’, in spite of their talented cast. Granted, these were alienated and alienating characters, but they should still contribute towards the same symphony; the impression often was of the actors playing to differing time signatures. I offer these few words of criticism, but am confident that experience will breed improvement. This was a creditable first effort.