Review: Absent Friends, Colchester Mercury

Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn at Colchester Mercury until March 10.

It is a nice thought. Colin has lost his fianc�e Carol in a tragic drowning accident and his old friends decide to hold a tea party to cheer him up. There should have been three couples to greet him but Marge’s accident-prone husband is as usual hors de combat and can’t make it, except on the phone.

Diana is the driving force behind the idea and has gone to a lot of trouble make it work with a big spread of sandwiches and fancies. Her husband Paul is not all that keen. Nor is John, another of Colin’s old pals. Apart from the fact that they are not now sure what they are going to say to him, we learn early on that John’s wife Evelyn and Paul have been lovers and everybody knows about it.

Diana is steaming, Marge is disgusted and Evelyn says it wasn’t much fun, no big deal and its over. But as they wait and fret about Colin’s arrival, it becomes obvious that only Marge is moderately happy with her wedded lot. The others are practically at dagger’s drawn.

This is what Colin walks into as they kind of agree not to mention the fiancee’s death and hope that Colin won’t bring it up. But he does, time after time. He’s even got photos of her and he’s relentlessly cheerful about his brief lost love. At the same time, with well-meant buddy memories and the odd revelation, he tears even bigger holes in his old mates’ marriages.

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It’s very funny, beautifully acted and played out on Foxton’s cracking orange and brown 1970s set with its Habitat-style wallpapers and curtains, big bowl lampshades and glass doors covered in white wrought iron designs.

Amanda Haberland is the nervy, anxious Diana with a strange fixation on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who has a great scene of exasperated revenge on Paul played by Ignatius Anthony as a thoroughly unlikeable self-made businessman bully.

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David Tarkenter has a fine row to hoe as the complaisant husband John dependant on Paul for work and does it very well and Gina Isaac is wonderful as the helpful Marge who has a finely-honed talent for coming out with the wrong thing.

Clare Humphrey’s bitter, sarcastic Evelyn, forever flicking through a women’s magazine, has the least to say but still raises a lot of laughs – as does Ben Livingstone’s gauche, well-meaning Colin who puts the cat among the pigeons with almost every breath.

David Henshall.

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