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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.’”

Brilliant.

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

Box office 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk

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