Absent Friends

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Theatre review: Absent FriendsLeft to right :Grae Burton, Katherine Kennard, Paul Lewis, David Mackie, Ingrid Park and Jennifer Matter.

A two-second pitch of this Tadpole production may seem all too familiar to avid Auckland theatre-goers: a 1970s British suburban sitting room drama of brittle couples scratching away politeness while sitting on the inevitable brown and orange couch. However, this early Alan Ayckbourn piece, directed by Adey Ramsel, is far more intriguing than such glibness implies.

Instead of Mike Leigh’s nit-picking of specific class differences in Abigail’s Party, as seen last year at The Basement, Ayckbourn takes on the souring of love, and social nervousness about death. Either issue could explain the resentful jangling of the characters’ interactions, and that helps to give the real-time play an interesting complexity: Does Paul not want to see his old friend Colin because Colin is recently bereaved, or because Paul wants to upset his own wife? Or did he never really like Colin?

The play is full of questions, and it has the good grace to acknowledge that the answers will depend on who’s answering. Is the thought of we were happy once an occasion for hope or despair? Does a person have a soft side if they never show it?

Would Colin remember his fiancée fondly if she’d lived long enough for them to get married?

As a play showing an awkward social occasion with a few cringing silences, it drags once or twice death kills the conversation but the satisfying number of often sympathetic characters keeps the audience busy noting different reactions.

The performances are a little uneven, and the women’s accents are more firmly fixed than the men’s. Katherine Kennard as a woman seeking refuge in the shallows is a stand-out; David Mackie plays Colin with a fabulous gormless, gasping simper. Robyn Fleming’s costumes are fun bright and loud without being 1970s theme-park.

One to chew over on your way home.


 

MORE SHOWING THAN BEING

ABSENT FRIENDS
by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Adey Ramsel
Presented by Tadpole Productions

at The Pumphouse, Takapuna, Auckland
From 8 May 2014 to 17 May 2014

Reviewed by Johnny Givins, 9 May 2014

Tadpole Productions’ latest venture is an evening of mis-direction, lack of theatrical reality, miscasting, unfortunate character choices: a theatrical event which fails to ignite on opening night.

Alan Ayckbourn (now Sir Alan) is ‘the most successful in his own lifetime playwright’. His many plays often capture the truth of English middle class society – its understatement; fragile surface behaviour – and reveal deep insecurities in the complexities of its manners.

Hard on the heels of the West End success of his famous trilogy Norman Conquests, Absent Friends was premiered in 1974. It follows in the same milieu as its predecessor with less dramatic action. A group of formerly close friends gather to console one of their number whose fiancée has died.  It’s staged as a classic English afternoon tea party.

Ayckbourn presents a fascinating insight into the culture of friendship and relationships as he explores the developing middle class of the 1970s in their ‘new towns’.  The script is rich in real English men and women whom the UK audience would have recognized and loved.

Transferring this fragile and complex society of the 70s to Auckland’s Pumphouse is a very difficult task for director Adey Ramsel. This comedy of manners needs a light touch, a feel of the period, and the ability of the production to capture these unique men and women of the time.

I am astonished how all the actors – billed as an ensemble cast – ‘act’ English.  They have a range of English accents which are charming and effective when first heard and relatively consistent throughout.  However each of ‘characters’ feel like copies of the ‘English characters’ the director needs to play the story. The actors are all working so hard to create the characters that they lose the truth inherent in their role and the emotional connections demanded by the ensemble situation.

There is a central theme in Absent Friends that each character lives in their own world and is unable to relate to the others.  However the play demands a connection at a deeper level. There must be connection between the actors on stage as they ‘live’ the situation to affect hearts and minds of the modern audience. This affection then results in the audience sharing the events and reacting to the funny and sad moments.  In actor terms, there is too much ‘showing’ and not enough ‘being’.

There is some lovely moment when characters just relax and ‘live’ the scenes.  There is a great deal of actor tension on stage as they follow direction rather than allow their creations to respond and react with truth and reality.

Let me be clear that the cast are all really good actors in other situations.  Katherine Kennard is one of my favourite screen actors in Nothing Trivial and other great shows.  She plays Marge, married to an obese, sick and dependent absent friend. We only get to know him though phone conversations.  Marge is a classic, she loves to shop, forgets people’s names and repeats conversations.

Her relationship with Diana (Ingrid Park you may remember from Go Girls) is central to the plot as Diana confirms her husband Paul (Grae Burton) is having extramarital sex and falls to pieces.  They both work well together and have a wonderful conversation on the couch, which is a classic Ayckbourn script of repeated lines and stream-of-consciousness idiocy.  However I want more range in Marge as she copes with her sick husband by remote, a distressed friend and domestic disasters.  Diana does hit the emotional moments demanded but it just doesn’t feel real.

The ‘other woman’, Evelyn (Jennifer Matter), is another potential great character. She is meant to be humourless, non-communicative, realist and mostly silent.  In this production we have a sexual siren, with beautiful Farrah Fawcett hair, and the most beautiful eyes.  She is such a beauty all the men on the stage should be salivating. She is married to the dullest character John (Paul Lewis) who is beholden to the man of the house for business.  John is constantly on the move but there seems no reason for his restlessness in this production.

The man of the house, Paul (Grae Burton), has me confused.  He is a player, physically active, alpha male who is successful and a winner in classic 70s fashion.  In this production he has a ‘Chopper’ moustache and some of that Aussie character’s machismo but few redeeming qualities.  He is sloppy, untidy and working class rather than the man most likely to succeed. He doesn’t live ‘success’.

The former friend we are all waiting to meet is Colin (David Mackie).  Dressed in a powder blue suit with a stylish seventies shirt he does make an impact with his positive attitude to his fiancé’s death and friendly attitude to all.  However he works so hard to create this ‘Englishman’ that he loses sympathy and affection and verges on annoying.

He illustrates the tendency of some New Zealand actors to create pale imitations of what we imagine is an English type as portrayed by such actors as Richard Briers in The Good Life, or Tom Conti in The Norman Conquests.  Perhaps as the season develops he will relax, stop working so hard and his real Colin will emerge.

The set is a 70s lounge but lacks the warmth and comfort I remember from the 70s.  It does have the Scandinavian furniture and the plastic weave bar stools but not the detail of the classic English afternoon tea.  The placement of the main entrance to the lounge as a side door doesn’t help the drama.

Also I hate the modern practice of smoking on stage with electronic cigarettes.  If the character needs to smoke (it is the 70s) then smoke a real cigarette or cigar… or find something else to do!  The artificial smoking only adds to the unreality of the characters.

Louise Wallace’s company, Tadpole Productions, is to be congratulated for maintaining their philosophy of doing plays on the North Shore with professional actors.  Unfortunately this production doesn’t fire the audience on the opening night.

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