Absent Friends | Devonshire Park Theatre | Review

Absent Friends

Devonshire Park Theatre

June 2023

Eastbourne Theatres have followed last week’s production of Abigail’s Party with another suburban situation comedy of manners written just 3 years earlier in 1974. Scheduling the two plays one after another makes comparison inevitable however I have never been a fan of last week’s offering so this week’s has a definite advantage.

When Colin, a friend who has been absent, comes back to his circle of friends, they are worried about how to approach him over the death of his fiancée, Carol, who has drowned. Diana organises a tea party for Colin’s arrival. The characters are shown to have interrelationship tensions and this is near erupting when Colin arrives, heightening the tension when they all work to appear friendly towards him. However Colin seems euphorically happy while the rest of the party are near breaking point. The similarities with last week’s production are endless. There’s even the character at the end of the phone who we never meet.

Absent Friends was inspired by a specific event in Alan Ayckbourn‘s life in which he attended a tea party for a woman whose husband had died during their honeymoon. The first Ayckbourn play to be set in ‘real’ time, Absent Friends was written during his heyday when he also wrote Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Bedroom Farce, Joking Apart and Taking Steps amongst many others although in my opinion it is not quite as good as those aforementioned. The themes seem very dated 50 years later and unlike writers like Rattigan, Osborne and Delaney, his writing now comes across as irrelevant and a bit ‘old hat’. Even in 1975 when the play transferred to the Garrick Theatre it was met with a frosty reception from the critics; the cast received plaudits, the play did not.

Fortunately, Phil&Ben Productions (Phil Stewart and Ben Roddy) have assembled an experienced cast who work well together to bring about an enjoyable evening’s entertainment. Stewart’s direction is pacy and assured and Roddy brings a much needed burst of energy when he finally appears as the recently bereaved Colin. Elsewhere, Katy Dean is very good as Marge whose main concerns are her new shoes and how much mess the ‘absent’ Gordon has made whilst laid up in bed with yet another illness and Rob Maloney is excellent as the stoical and philandering husband, Paul.

Lucy Todd’s final breakdown when she declares she always wanted to be a Canadian Mountie when she was young is both harrowing and hysterical in equal measure and Paul Westwood is convincing as the energetic John who can never sit still or indeed sit down at all.

The stand out performance is Lucy-Jane Quinlan as the monosyllabic Evelyn whose dry and sardonic delivery is hilarious. She manages to elicit most of the biggest laughs from the first night audience.

Phil&Ben Productions return later in the Summer with Gaslight and John Godber’s Men of the World. I’m hoping another Victorian thriller and a multi-role playing northern comedy aren’t programmed in the preceding weeks!


Reviewer: Patric Kearns