Absent Friends DATE 12th July 2023 SOCIETY Fylde Coast Players VENUE Lowther Pavilion TYPE OF PRODUCTION Play DIRECTOR Andy Cooke WRITTEN BY Alan Ayckbourn Report Author: Clare Higgins
Many thanks to Fylde Coast Players for their invitation to watch their latest drama Absent Friends at Lowther Pavilion Theatre, which I attended on the opening night of 12th July 2023. This 1974 play by Alan Ayckbourn is purposely written with very little action in order to draw the audience’s attention to the details of the dialogue and subtleties of the interrelationship tensions between various characters. All the action takes place in Paul and Diana’s living room during a tea party arranged by Diana for a group of friends to welcome back the bereaved Colin, whose fiancée has recently drowned. The tensions amongst the group are about to erupt when Colin arrives – this only heightens the tense atmosphere as they all work to appear friendly towards their grieving friend. However, Colin seems euphorically happy, believing himself to have experienced the “perfect” relationship and erroneously believes he knows more about his friends and their marriages than they do themselves, leaving his unhappily married friends worse than bereft! Behind all this, Diana knows deep down that her husband Paul is having a love affair with Evelyn. Evelyn's husband John is in business with Paul and knows that Paul and Evelyn have slept together but doesn't say anything in fear of damaging business relations! The play unfolds and Colin's arrival triggers Diana's confrontation. Huge congratulations go to all involved on the production side of this drama. The set and props were fantastic and left the audience in no doubt they had been transported back to the 70s. As soon as the safety curtain went up, a lava lamp and fibre optic lamp were clearly visible on the darkened stage which was a lovely touch and all props throughout the play were well suited to the setting. When the stage lights went up, I was really taken aback by the spectacle of the living room set as it was so striking and I commented to my guest immediately how impressive it looked. Very well done Tim Greenwood, Rich Spilman and friends and Sue Wood! Anne Cruden and the cast had put together an appropriate ensemble of costumes which were in keeping with the characters and setting of the piece and looked good on stage.
Lighting was static as was appropriate for the piece, with all areas of the stage and all characters lit from multiple angles to avoid any awkward shadow casting and dialogue volume was enhanced simply by static overhead mics. The cast generally projected well and had good diction so the dialogue was easy to follow throughout although initially, one had to concentrate to really hear everything the character of John was saying, especially as the character was a very awkward, fidgety man with a shuffling walk (which was quite loud on the stage) – this improved in the second half.
The cast of three men and three women had good on-stage chemistry which really came across to the audience, making it believable that they were a group of long-standing friends. I really enjoyed the way each individual had a very definite and distinct character which never wavered throughout the piece.
We were first introduced to Diana and Evelyn played by Ann Slack and Andrea Cave respectively, who played perfect opposites; Ann did a fine job of portraying the highly strung, highly emotional Diana, talking ten to the dozen (well memorised!), suspicious of her husband having an affair with Evelyn and Andrea gave a fine comedic performance as the very laid back Evelyn who hardly said a word and would clearly rather be anywhere else on the planet than in Diana’s living room. I felt Andrea’s performance was reminiscent of some of Diane Morgan’s very funny TV characters and I really appreciated the acting through body language and tone of voice with the very limited dialogue. Nicely done ladies!
Next, we met Marge the knitter with her numerous shopping bags, played brilliantly by Heather Cartmell, whose husband we never see due to him being perpetually out of circulation with trivial illnesses. Several telephone conversations between the two of them are witnessed from Marge’s side only and it becomes clear very quickly that her husband has a severe case of a ‘man flu’ level illness and can’t cope without her! Heather delivered some fantastically funny one liners in a brilliantly organic way, allowing Ayckbourn’s script to do the work and not overplaying anything for laughs. I can imagine Heather pulling off an excellent Hyacinth Bucket – she has a beautifully authentic style and for me was a real highlight of the evening.
Paul, Diana’s cheating husband and businessman, was played by Tim Greenwood who was very convincing as the arrogant, dismissive man who clearly isn’t happily married at all. He instantly made the tension between him and his wife clear and generally portrayed a rather unlikeable character very well. As an audience member I was definitely on Diana’s side when she finally confronted Paul, so that’s a job well done Tim!
Tim Cave played John, Evelyn’s anxious, downtrodden husband who is fully aware that his wife has slept with his business partner but tries all night to have a conversation with Paul regarding work as if nothing has happened. Tim’s wasn’t an easy job, having to constantly be fidgeting and skulking around the set (think Evan Hansen on steroids!) but he did very well with this, never letting it slip once whilst also being sympathetically aware of the main action on stage when he wasn’t part of it. Once his voice projection picked up in the second half, this became a solid performance with a very clear characterisation, which left me feeling for John and his predicament.
Finally, we met Colin, the friend returning to the fold following the untimely death of his fiancée. Mick Gray gave another stand out performance for me – he created a brilliantly funny character and did a superb job of portraying that friend you love to hate because they have no idea how intensely annoying they can be! To have the audience wanting to simultaneously hug and slap a character is no mean feat and Mick’s Colin certainly did that. We could feel his pain from losing the “perfect” love of his life but also cringed at the insensitive way he delivered his unsolicited advice to his friends. This was a performance to be proud of Mick – bravo! In my opinion this play was a successful production and I hope the audience size increased as the run went on – the cast did very well to play to a house low on numbers, especially a comedy, as this is not easy. My guest and I thoroughly enjoyed our evening with the Fylde Coast Players and I look forward to more of their exploits in the future.