Theatre Review: Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn, Harold Pinter Theatre; Hay Fever by Noel Coward, Noel Coward Theatre

There are so many parallels between Absent Friends and Hay Fever that there were times watching the latter (I saw it a couple of weeks after AF) that I wondered where the 70s kaftans were. The spirit of Coward is as much a guest at Ayckbourn’s black comedy as the six characters on stage.

Both plays revolve around awkward house parties and revel in the humorous fallout of painful human relationships. They’re both heavy with toe-curling pauses (it’s appropriate that AF played at the Harold Pinter Theatre, named after the king of the pregnant pause) and all-too real foot-in-mouth moments. The results are often hilarious and frequently embarrassing.

AF is set in the brown-tinted 70s as a group of middle class friends come together at on-the-edge Diana (pitch-perfectly played by Katherine Parkinson) and her throw-back chauvinist husband Paul’s house as they gather to show their support over tea and trifle to their supposedly close pal Colin who moved away only tragically lose his fiancé in a drowning accident. The opening awkward scene – heavy with bitterness and paranoia – between the unhappy Diana and the sullen, taciturn mum Evelyn (played with the perfect balance of sympathy and menace by Kara Tointon) who Diana is convinced her husband is having an affair with, sets the tone for the rest of the play. The arrival of Marge and her new shoes only stirs up the drama, and, with it the laughs. Elizabeth Berrington is deliciously funny as the childless mother hen with a knack for putting those ugly wedges in her mouth.

The bubbling despair  – and with it the squirm factor – boils over with the arrival of Colin (Reece Shearsmith) and his photo albums – who, despite his recent trauma, is the only contented character on stage. I found myself laughing to the point of tears at a particularly inappropriate Marge comment before realising I was guffawing at a tragic death and someone’s grief. Feeling conflicted I tried to rearrange my features into a more sombre façade.  An emotional conflict that Ayckbourn would no doubt be happy with.

HF doesn’t throw up the same conundrums. Set in the 1920s during a weekend at an English country house, the laughs are more straightforward, arising from the unpleasantness of the Bliss family and the class clash between the boho hosts and their more conventional weekend guests. Lindsay Duncan has rightly been lauded for her role as Judith Bliss, a former actress whose life remains one long performance. It’s a role that could easily slip into overdramatic campness, but Duncan veers towards underplaying her which only enhances Judith’s melodrama. Under the shadow of such a mother and a boorish, disinterested father (Kevin R McNally) their daughter Sorrell struggles to encourage herself and her self-obsessed family to be more polite and normal. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s performance is both snortingly funny and rather touching while Freddie Fox as her spoilt brat brother Simon inhabits his role as easily as a 1920s smoking jacket. Jeremy Northam – who I’ve only ever seen doing borderline-gruff –  proves a fine comic actor in his role as fusty diplomat Richard. In fact the only cast member who doesn’t quite fit is the usually brilliant Olivia Coleman who barely stretches her considerable acting chops as glamorous Myra Arundel.  But I think she was the only one in the theatre who was bored at this fizzing adaptation of Coward’s sharply observed script.

by Suzanne Elliott

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