Coliseum Theatre, Oldham
To open the year, Oldham Coliseum has recruited Nikolai Foster to direct Alan Ayckbourn's 1974 black comedy Absent Friends.
Set in the time it was first performed, the play is based around three couples: Diana and Paul whose house they are in, miserable, antisocial Evelyn and her manically fidgety husband John and raucous Marge and her accident-prone husband Gordon who is ill at home in bed. They have come together to cheer up an old friend, Colin, whom they haven't seen for a few years, as a couple of months earlier his fiancée died in tragic circumstances.
However when Colin arrives, he is perfectly cheerful and has come to terms with his loss, and it is the others who are unable to talk about the incident and whose lives gradually fall apart as the evening wears on.
The play is quite static in a lot of ways and so, to keep the audience's attention while the characters sit around talking, eating and drinking, the pace and the characterisations must be just right, but unfortunately both are rather hit and miss in Foster's production. There is a lot of comedy of embarrassment through awkward silences, which rarely comes across as natural and instead just slows everything down. The pace certainly picks up as the interval approaches and the atmosphere starts to get frantic, and although it still seems staged rather than natural it is certainly more interesting to watch at this point.
There is a striking inconsistency in the styles in which the characters are played. We open with some real over-the-top caricatures from Kerry Peers as Diana and Samantha Giles as Marge with Poppy Tierney perhaps a little more restrained as Evelyn. In complete contrast, into this house of screeching women comes Steven Pinder's Paul whose muttered dialogue seems more suited to the TV camera than broad stage comedy. Dominic Gately's John is more towards the comic extreme end of the scale, whereas David Crellin's Colin pitches somewhere in the middle and comes the closest to giving his character any emotional depth.
Designer Colin Richmond has created an impressive set that recreates pretty much the whole ground plan of a 1970s suburban house with all of the walls except the one on the audience's side in place; the effect of some people being obscured apart from the occasional glance through a doorway or the kitchen hatch in a few scenes works quite well. The rain running down the outside of the patio door towards the end is a nice touch. Thomas Weir's lighting is fine, although there is an odd moment when someone turns the room light on and you realise that it has gone dark in the garden but the room is no dimmer than at the start.
The inconsistencies, shallow characters and poor pacing must ultimately come down to the direction (especially when I look back at my reviews of Foster's touring productions of All The Fun Of The Fair and The Witches of Eastwick, the latter also starring Tierney, that found similar faults with the direction). The production seems to begin with the misinterpretation that many amateur companies make in believing Ayckbourn to be the creator of broad, popular, knockabout comedy, but he is actually far more subtle, clever and interesting than that and funnier.
While there are undoubtedly some laughs in the funny lines and in the pacier moments in the play, this production really does not do justice to the script or to the acting talent on the stage.
Plyaing until 20th February
Reviewer: David Chadderton