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Absent Friends at the Masquers

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By Theresa de Valence - Posted on 29 January 2009

Awkward, what? A few delicate difficulties exacerbate a rare gathering of old friends in Absent Friends, written by Alan Ayckbourn and directed by Angela Mason. The situation is ripe for the kind of tragic comedy for which British playwrights, especially Ayckbourn, are well known.

A different kind of play, my first reaction was that I didn’t know how to understand it. There’s a lot of the kind of humour I don’t like (or maybe don’t understand), but I enjoyed the performance nonetheless. The audience found the play hilarious—except for the tragic pieces, there was semi-continual laughter throughout.

Masquers Theatre has new seats—they are wider and much more comfortable. Thank you! The set is fine; designed by Dave Wilkerson, it comes very far forward, almost into the audience’s lap. Curious, there is one seat too few for the actors requiring a choreographed dance—subtly appropriate for the tension this play invokes. The rain is very good.

Diana (Katina Letheule) (photo, bottom right; photo by Jerry Telfer) reveals her inner insecurity amidst the meaningless clutter around her tea party. She is a woman for whom saving face is paramount. Her tightly controlled presence is palpable, strengthened by indiscreet flashes of immense, repressed anger. She is the character who changes most. Good guys and bad guys are often easy to detect in theatre, but Katina’s performance is so well done it took me most of the play to decide how I felt about her.

Diana’s husband, Paul (Michael Clark), is an ambitious and successful businessman with many of the habits one has come to associate with such types. He’s cruel in the way the commercially successful call honest. He’s a man who wants to control the people he’s with, subliminally. He says he wants to skip the tea party, but absent that he tries to control what people say. He does this from the back seat, as some aggressive people do, by complaining about what has already been said, rather than leading by example and starting a pleasant conversation. He’s superficially reserved, filled with smug self-conceit, and surely, sexually irresistible.

Pamela Ciochetti (photo, bottom left) wonderfully conjures up Marge, a favourite aunt whom one would cheerfully strangle for her well meaning, but stubborn and dim attempts to be helpful—oblivious to the emotional undercurrents. Marge’s fashion sense also severely tries her friends’ ability to remain polite. Of course she volunteers to tidy up after a particularly exciting altercation, but, being Marge, she tidies up well beyond the original scope. I found myself worrying about her and had to drag myself back to the play! Marge is a gem.

Marge’s husband Gordon is interesting, too, particularly as he makes no onstage appearance. The ensemble, particularly Pamela, deserve kudos for how well structured Gordon becomes. By the time the play has well advanced, we intimately know this huge, hypochondriac, short-tempered man and his relationship with this mothering, smothering wife.

Colin (Simon Patton) looks like the happiest man at the tea party, but I don’t know that Colin actually is enjoying himself, really. He’s trying so very hard to be jolly. Colin plunges right into the middle of awkwardness and raises the embarrassment quotient to the next level by his obliviousness. I found myself wondering how an intelligent man could have reached his present age and know so little about people, particularly his friends. So I thought Colin might be very unhappy which made Simon’s performance subtle and excellent.

Wayne (Daniel Campbell) is a new baby with predictable cries whose parents have discovered an interesting way to clean diapers.

Evelyn (Michelle Pond), the new mother, is a complete sourpuss. She is a perfect straight-man—able to make or take the most awful remarks without cracking a smile. The usually attractive Michelle’s face is so perpetually disfigured by grimaces that I rested my eyes by scrutinizing her lovely figure, noticing at once that her legs have now grown several inches longer. I have reason to know that Michelle doesn’t look at all like Evelyn, a testament to her skill in this play. I found Evelyn’s disgruntlement and complacent superiority completely maddening; I wanted to strike out and do something—anything—to change that unpleasant scowl—surely a worrisome impulse under the circs.

John (Philip Sales) (photo, top) is the perfect cuckold, his demeanour shaming but bright. His responses vacillate between the obsequious and the tentatively forceful. He is also our resident funny-man, shooting off remarks intended to be funny with that anxious pause to see whether the recipient got the joke.

I’m a simple spectator—the actors speak, I follow their conversation. As a reviewer, I’m learning to watch what occurs outside the main story and John is an ideal subject, though whether the credit for this broader scope for visual humour came from the actor, director, or playwright, I don’t know. John is a character one must keep under one’s eye, regardless of the main action in the play. He is restless—its perpetualness becomes almost a subplot—we have many occasions to laugh at his irreverent antics. Superb delivery!

In writing this review I was surprised to discover that my description of each character could easily be transplanted to cover any number of my acquaintances. These characters are ordinary people, though quite unlovable in this story. A description of their life conditions wouldn’t sound like the basis for comedy, but it is a typically British style of humour. Were one in the same circs in reality, one would be terribly embarrassed—but happening to other people, and on stage—many people found the play very funny indeed.

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Great show, great review!

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