|Photo by Katy Green Loughrey|
An evening with Alan Ayckbourn is one that one can look forward too, generally, with anticipatory pleasure, and the Ensemble Theatre has taken a very sensible shine to presenting his challenging and comic work for us at least once a year - last year, NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH - this season, it is ABSENT FRIENDS.
ABSENT FRIENDS written in 1974, is one of those comedies of his that shares the laser-like observational skill of Anton Chekhov, whilst wielding the doctorly scalpel of a "good doctor" with a withering psychological accuracy. If the accuracies cause 'blood' to spill for you, or not, will depend on what you are prepared to recognise about yourself, your relationships, and/or those of your friends about you. Whatever those exposures of truth for you may be, the audience I was with at the EnsembleTheatre the other night, found enormous opportunity for much laughter, and, as well, some anguished side-long glances at their partners and friends beside them.
A group of married friends, all, we will gather, unhappily married, have gathered to console one of their old friends, Colin (Darren Gilshenan), not married, but, in bereavement at the loss of his girlfriend, Carol. To offer this condolence to a friend of suspect respect, maybe a welcome distraction for these unhappy people from their own situation. As this night of emotional devastation unravels we may begin to admit that Colin is the lucky one, that fate has intervened, for if the marriages of his hosts are anything to go by, the death of his fiancee was a blessing in disguise.
Typical of Mr Ayckbourn, the lives of his lower middle class 'friends' are being crushed under the weight of disillusionment and the boredom of legal 'bondage' - marriage. A state that some anthropologists claim as unnatural, and Mr Ibsen has railed against, conventionally controversially, in such plays as A DOLL'S HOUSE. Diana (Michelle Doake) and Paul (Richard Sydenham) are in a precarious state of desperate emotional implosion - their wearied and silent acceptance of each other's faults and 'sins' weighing heavily on their existence. The mismatched temperaments of sulky and aggravated Evelyn (Jessica Sullivan), and bewildered, inadequate, cuckolded John (Brian Meegan) are an open sore of deliberate irritations - on stage, the pram with baby, a symbol of their entwined entrapping bond. Whilst Marge, (Queenie Van de Zandt) reveals her interdependence and fretful co-dependence with an invisible (offstage) hypochondriacal husband, Gordon, who may well be her baby substitute, as her marriage bonding, so far, as had no offspring - her helpfulness and preoccupations symptoms of distraction for other considerations. Into all of this comes Colin, an unctuous, blithely social myopic. Seeing nothing and no-one beyond his own experiences and wants, needs.
The world of this play is bleak, a middle class wasteland - illustrated well, by the purposely, 'naff' '70's Set Design and Costumes, by Anna Gardiner (Costume co-ordinator, Catherine Capolupo) - but for all that, too humanely observed and so cleverly explicated by Mr Ayckbourn, that laughter becomes a sedative to our growing anxiety for these people, a kind of healing balm for all of us in the audience. We, after, may question why we laughed, but laugh we did, and laugh you shall, despite yourself.
Mr Gilshenan, as Colin, reveals the right balance of bon-homie, of a man with the unconscious smugness of good fortune to be, still, a single man, and because of his tragedy (Carol's drowning) the centre of empathetic attention; Mr Meegan finding the idiosyncratic ticks of a socially 'drowning' man, impressing, as he did in NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH, last year, with his skills and clear insight into the world of Mr Ayckbourn's intentions; and Ms Van De Zandt, a triumph of pathos and comic 'covers' giving the most satisfactory performance on the stage with all of her crafted comic business, and deep well of owned emotional grief for the life of Marge - tender, clever, beautifully sustained.
Director, Mark Kilmurry, tends to overreach the comic direction of Mr Ayckbourn's play, in this naturalistic, observational comedy, by directing, the usually assured Ms Doake, and consequently, Mr Sydenham, into overstated emotional farce - the whooping cry of Diana, and prolonged laughter-hysteria of Paul, too much for comfortable belief and acceptance. The psychological underpinnings and the social structure of the work requires more Chekhov and less Durang, in approach. This work felt 'pushed', deliberately guided to hysteria, where comic grief, felt-fathoms of sadness, would be a better explication - motivated for both wife and husband from a true bottomless despair. Ms Sullivan is only superficially funny in each scene and seems to count on Mr Ayckbourn to do all her work for her, and does not help us understand Evelyn's unhappiness (her motivational subtext), or why she bears it out, it seems, to the edge of a cold-blooded doom - she just does.
Mr Ayckbourn's ABSENT FRIENDS, though written 40 years ago, is pathetically relevant, and enhances undoubtedly, the growing reputation of this still living and prolific playwright, as a timeless master. Like his friend and mutual admirer, Harold Pinter, a genius of classic invention and human sympathy.