Brighton Year-Round 2021
Directed by Ann Atkins, Stage Manager Rosalind Caldwell and Michelle Speller, Set Design and Construction Steven Adams, Set Construction and Painting Tom Williams, Allison Williams. Lighting and Sound Design and Operation Beverley Grover, Costumes Margaret Skeet, Glenys Stuart. Till October 30th.
There are some productions so good you don’t really feel like seeing the play again, even in the West End. Especially something as excruciatingly funny as Alan Ayckbourn’s 1974 Absent Friends. Timing of cringe and deadly pause is more demanding in comedy, above all Ayckbourn, than anywhere else.
Absent Friends might be an amateur staple. BLT’s production could grace any professional stage. That wasn’t just my reaction but of several – including a director/actor who toured in a major revival of Ayckbourn’s Confusions.
This first of Ayckbourn’s tragi-comedies took a while to be appreciated. written in the wake of two stand-outs Absurd Person Singular and the Norman Conquest trilogy: when Absent Friends transferred to the West End Ayckbourn had five plays running concurrently there, a record beating Somerset Maugham’s 1908 four. This intimate play set in real time was a reaction to the huge energies expended in The Norman Conquests, and in it Ayckbourn found a new direction, that of his finest plays.
It helps that three of the six cast come from BLT’s superb August rendering of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You won’t recognize them.
Holly Everett’s darting Snug and Moth is now sulky humourless but sexy Evelyn, baby in pram serving as escape valve. Everett’s miserabilist mag-flicking Evelyn contains this one-note character till suddenly left alone with Marge, Paul or pushed to the limit she spits venom. She informs Marge of what she told Paul at the time: being in the back of the car with him was worse than her husband. ‘Like being made love to by a sack of wet cement. Please drive me home.’ ‘Back of the car’ and ‘drowned’ are trigger phrases innocently repeated in the play, to flinching effect. Everett’s depiction of rage is coiled, ever ready to strike.
Kate McGann’s transcendent Bottom is now Marge, garrulous but loyal friend of host Diana, who does things like buy redundant kitchen-roll holders for her friend on impulse but pushes Evelyn to confess early on – who revenges herself by pointing out how wrong-toned, ill-fitting and cheap Marge’s new shoes are.
McGann demonstrates even slightly dim Marge proves complex. Married to absent friend Gordon (once a potential county-cricketer, now an ill overweight man whose constant phone-calls punctuate the action) she displays a skew emotional intelligence and homing-instinct to protect those she cares for.
And Daniel Carr’s dashing clear-voiced Demetrius is transformed to over-sharer guest Colin, whose desperate positivity underscores the deepest grief. His 14-months fiancée Carol has died, the other absent friend, and his celebration of having loved and lost presses all the right/wrong buttons.
Colin’s the point of Diana’s party that no-one else but Colin wants to be at. Tensions already rising, Colin’s hapless desire to spread carpe diem love and light instead sheds a halogen on everything wrong around him.
This trio are easily matched by Frankie Knight’s host Diana – whose needling sultry Evelyn with having an affair with her husband reveals a masterclass of one-sided conversation turned monologue. Knight’s return after lockdown is a highlight. Knight’s character too packs the greatest surprises in an arc of barely suppressed grief of Diana’s own, twice over providing the two act’s climaxes.
Diana’s trigger-hair alpha husband Paul, barely containing rudeness throughout, is inhabited by Paul Morley (another returning BLT luminary) in a throbbing horror of detonation you always fear will come. Morley’s growly command-mode sticks whether barking at Diana that he won’t meet Colin, or telling other men at points to shut up; finally a terrible laugh full of demons.
Ciaran O’Connor, most recently in BLT exquisite production of Friel’s Afterplay has the most challenging physical role: never to stay still, as his nervous underachiever John, so suppliant to Paul he shrugs off being cuckolded, exudes hangdog cheerfulness whilst physically he shudders a fear of death and bodges every sub-par house appliance for Evelyn, every botched busines deal with Paul – the latest being catfood no cat will touch. O’Connor’s jumpiness is a masterclass.
Directed by Ann Atkins at a natural cracking pace so it’s over in under one hour fifty (the original running time excluding interval), graced with Steven Adams’ immaculate recreation of a mid-70s living room: a set whose construction’s shared by Tom and Allison Williams who also paint it. To a central sofa and chairs there’s a white-painted brick fireplace with 70s wall hanging decoration shifting hues, a sideboard stage left with lava lamp below a remarkable construction of a modish wall clock, stage right with bric-a-brac. Backstage left there’s the front door exit with recessed paintings, backstage right a back door exit Evelyn frequently escapes through with her pram. Beverley Grover’s lighting and 70s sound design as well as operation involves a steady interior spotlit with that lava lamp. Grover’s sound slips through a gallimaufry of mid-70s hits, chiming with what Evelyn tunelessly croons to her baby Wayne.
Margaret Skeet’s and Glenys Stuart’s costumes cannily echo character: slinky Evelyn with her blouse and jeans, Diana’s uber-coping ochre dress, Marge’s just-off attire, Paul’s alpha-male classic blandness (for men who don’t have to try too hard), John’s beta-male shirt jollity, and Colin’s little-lost-boyishness. Stage managers are Rosalind Caldwell and Michelle Speller.
It’s Colin’s joyful recollections of Carol, when he obliviously starts trying to tell everyone how happy they can be, that pushes crisis. Starting with Evelyn, he reveals to Paul and Diana how both were besotted (he’d been wooing Diana himself) to an extent only Colin knew. Then there’s the matter of a stolen napkin, and Paul’s riposte that detonates Diana.
What cream bowls and Canadian Mounties have to do with all this you’ll need to see for yourself. Knight’s magnificent final speeches nail a point way beyond comedy. You feel Ayckbourn’s self-discovery in the instant. But who’s ill here? Is Colin so joyful? Carr’s interpretation suggests reactive jollity emanating from a desperate hollow. It’s a departure from many readings, but surely what Ayckbourn means.
The cats-cradles of mutual resentments are terraced and paced by the ensemble before Colin’s arrival, so each introduction of character – even offstage Gordon – adds a further dramatic challenge to which this ensemble rises magnificently.
It’s in the timing: John’s musical-chairs crimped by Paul’s orders to sit down (O’Connor and Morley playing master and mate), the devastating pauses when McGann’s hapless Marge says ‘drowned’ (about tea!) and John’s ‘back of the car’ which all but Colin recognise, the cringeworthy duets when two characters can seethe unchecked by politesse. And even the beginnings of a chorus of disapproval at the end. There’s something in Colin prefiguring the play of that name Ayckbourn wrote in 1982.
Meanwhile, if you can book, beg or otherwise snaffle a ticket, you won’t find a more satisfying production anywhere in Brighton this month. Outstanding.