CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Cotswold Life today CLICK HERE

Review: Absent Friends at the Cheltenham Everyman

PUBLISHED: 14:03 15 July 2015 | UPDATED: 14:03 15 July 2015

Absent Friends | Photo: Sheila Burnett

Absent Friends | Photo: Sheila Burnett

Sheila Burnett

Dying of embarrassment is much more fun than you might imagine, blushes Katie Jarvis. If you’re going to see Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Absent Friends’ at the Cheltenham Everyman, prepare for silences, blunders, and an uncomfortably funny evening.

Absent Friends | Photo: Sheila BurnettAbsent Friends | Photo: Sheila Burnett

“Oh my gosh!” I gaffaw to Ian, as we gaze on the scenery for Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends. It’s an orgy of 1970s delusions, involving the idea that teak shelving, deep-pile carpets and leather sofas were in any way the acceptable face of a living room.

“Look at that stone-effect fireplace!” Ian gasps, pointing out the kind of wallpaper that pretended to actually be something you wouldn’t want it to be in the first place.

“And the geometric-patterned wallpaper!” I giggle.

“And,” he continues, pointing with horror, “that awful starburst clock on the wall!”

There’s a difficult pause. “We have one of those over the staircase,” I point out, coldly. The man has no idea of good taste.

Neither, of course, has Diana, the hostess of a tea party on which the action of Absent Friends is focused. The glory of this play is that it is cringe-iness on stilts. Robert Morley’s Book of Bricks writ large. (Of which my favourite story involves Joyce Grenfell, showing people round her new house which she’s looking forward to renovating. On entering one particular room, a guest exclaimed, “Heavens! You’ll have fun doing up this one!” It turned out to be the only one Joyce had actually finished.) This is the play for all those people – such as I – with borderline Tourette’s, who have to suppress urgent desires suddenly to yodel during the silent bits in church.

Absent Friends | Photo: Sheila BurnettAbsent Friends | Photo: Sheila Burnett

And, my gosh, I take my hat off to the cast, who brought to life ‘Embarrassment’ in a way rarely seen outside a John Prescott interview. The setting is a tea party, arranged by Diana, for an old friend, Col, who has recently lost his fiancée Carol in a drowning incident. Of course, this is grist to the mill for anyone with foot-in-mouth, to use a purity of metaphors.

“Don’t drown it!” says Marge, as Diana pours her tea. (Which, sorry to digress, inexorably brings to mind the footage of a Blue Peter presenter telling the owner of a guide dog, “He’s not taking a blind bit of notice!” Freud had a name for this.)

As the play begins – awkwardly, of course – I’m sure I’m not alone in suppressing an urgent urge to yodel (see above) during the many silences. After a few scenes, of course, the silences become the least embarrassing thing about the play. Diana (Catherine Harvey) suspects her laconic guest Evelyn (Alice Selwyn) – mother of baby Wayne/Walter (played by a pram) – of having had a quickie with her husband, Paul (Kevin Drury), despite his claim to have been at the local football match during the period in question.

“Did you go [to the match]” Colin asks a short time later.

“No… YES!” Paul answers, only getting it right on second attempt.

Marge’s husband Gordon (Jumbo), of a size rarely seen (and, indeed, never seen here – he’s only a presence on the phone) is ill (as usual) and unable to come to tea. He makes his presence felt via increasingly desperate calls involving tragic accidents – such as spilling his cough-mixture in bed. “Rub it better, baby,” Marge tells him, sympathetically, mouthing, “He’s all bunged up,” to update the others.

John (John Dorney) is fab as the salesman who is completely understanding about his wife Evelyn’s encounter-in-the-back-of-a-car with Paul, on the basis that he wants Paul to back a sales deal. Death-phobic, John checks he’s still alive by not being able to sit still for a second; even when standing, his bounce is constant. (I can only imagine that Dorney has to eat six bananas, two bowls of porridge, a whole chicken and a six-egg omelette before going on stage each night, just to fuel the jiggling.)

Absent Friends | Photo: Sheila BurnettAbsent Friends | Photo: Sheila Burnett

And then there’s Colin (Ashley Cook) as the bereaved fiancé whose relationship (despite her death) seems the only healthy one among them.

The last Ayckbourn I saw at Cheltenham (Roundelay – one of his most recent) wasn’t madly impressive. Perhaps a case of quantity over quality. (Indeed, so impressed am I by Ayckbourn’s output, I temporarily misunderstood the programme’s list entitled ‘Ayckbourn’s 79 plays’, thinking, for a second, that these were all plays he wrote in 1979.)

But Absent Friends, written in 1974, is a cracker. It’s uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing – and hilarious. The best thing is that, for once, you weren’t the one putting your foot in it.

I can only end with one of my favourite jokes, as quoted in Richard Wiseman’s Quirkology. It sort of sums it up.

“Last night I made a Freudian slip. I was having dinner with my mother-in-law and wanted to say: ‘Could you please pass the butter?’ But instead I said: ‘You silly cow, you have completely ruined my life.’”



The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ

Box office 01242 572573;


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Cotswold Life visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Cotswold Life staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Cotswold Life account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & about

Thursday, November 15, 2018

As well as three days of action-packed racing and tradition, there’s plenty to do away from the course at this year’s November Meeting. Neil Phillips, The Wine Tipster, shares his 14 suggestions on how to make the most of your time at Cheltenham Racecourse

Read more
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Warwickshire town of Alcester is considered one of the best understood Roman settlements in the country. Tracy Spiers digs below the surface to discover its hidden jewels

Read more

Thanks to the impact of ground-breaking comedy This Country, the quiet market town of Northleach has become one of the Cotswolds’ hottest film locations. Katie Jarvis is sent to investigate

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Stephen Roberts walks in the footsteps of the Oxford scholar who enjoyed attending parties dressed as a polar bear, and once chased a neighbour while dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

I send this postcard from Cirencester, complete with the discoveries and viewpoints from four members of my family – both the young and not so young

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

If you’re looking for things to do in the Cotswolds this month, we have gathered plenty of events for you to pop in your diary

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

One hundred years ago this month the guns fell silent, marking the end of what was to become known as The Great War. Stephen Roberts remembers the impact the war had on Cotswold lives from 1914-1918

Read more
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Being a region so steeped in history, there are plenty of locations in the Cotswolds with spooky stories from over the years. From bloody executions, eerie apparitions and headless horsemen, we pick 23 of the most haunted locations throughout the Cotswolds to visit if you dare

Read more
Tuesday, October 30, 2018

New bat cams installed at Woodchester Mansion help study protected breeds while also becoming an added attraction for visitors. Jo Barber looks at the work of one of the UK’s foremost bat experts and the mansion’s valued volunteers

Read more
Tuesday, October 30, 2018

From an all-boy, all boarding prep school for just 30 pupils, to the quietly trailblazing yet still traditional school it is today – here is a snapshot of Beaudesert over its 110-year history

Read more
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Of all the castles in the region, none have seen as much war, romance and royalty as Sudeley over its dramatic 1,000-year history. And with such a colourful and eventful past, it is easy to see why some people believe there could be spirits from bygone eras which still wander the halls and corridors to this day

Read more
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Following a record year for ‘visitor giving’ donations via local businesses, applications are invited to fund conservation projects

Read more
Monday, October 15, 2018

What started as a business ploy by one Cotswold firm has developed into an inspirational garden

Read more
Monday, October 8, 2018

If a bit of English eccentricity is your thing, spend an enjoyable afternoon exploring the delightful follies of Faringdon

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory A+ Education

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search