I think I’ve seriously underestimated Alan Ayckbourn after I was subjected to dodgy amateur outings of his plays in my younger days. But the Ensemble Theatre have done their best to quiet the cynic in me in their production of ‘Absent Friends’, Ayckbourn’s 1974 satire on the disappointments of marriage and identity.
The first thing that strikes you about the play is the classic 1970’s set and costumes, designed by Ensemble favourite, Anna Gardiner, combined with a soundtrack of the era, epitomized in the sounds of Skyhooks, raw enough to be dirty and tongue-in-cheek to capture Ayckbourn’s damning indictment of relationships where one person has all the power and the other is the martyr of their own making.
‘Absent Friends’ explores three couples, Diana (Michelle Doake) and Paul (Richard Sydenham), Marge (Queenie Van de Zandt) and Gordon, (absent) and Evelyn (Jessica Sullivan) and John (Brian Meegan). They have gathered to await the return of old friend Colin (Darren Gilshenan) after the death of his fiancé, with a promise to offer him comfort and support. During the course of the evening each couple hits an inevitable marriage crisis and suddenly Colin, who is upbeat, demonstrating positivity towards the quality time spent with his now absent love, is the only one whose future offers a glimmer of avoiding a complete nervous breakdown.
Director Mark Kilmurry has produced a tight, clever comedy and has chosen a cast worthy of hitting each note. I could be content watching Doake open a tin can on stage, such is the depth of her talent but the show was stolen by Van de Zandt, whose Marge was part desperation, part maternal and part crazy cat lady (but insert Gordon for cat). Gilshenan will always please and Meegan and Sullivan gave fine performances. And although I can find Sydenham a bit wooden, his arrogance as Paul was captured suitably and he is infinitely unlikeable.
This play is another great choice for the Ensemble and as an independent company with no government funding, I think we often take for granted the quality of what they produce. They are by far one of Sydney’s most impressive independent theatre companies and this show is a win for couples of all ages and for smug singles who have avoided matrimony.