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Absent Friends: Amusing

Jean-Paul Menou and Shanique Brown in Absent Friends

Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends is an open-ended statement about relationships. The University Players' rendition of the play, directed by Brian Heap, provides an entertaining look at friendship or maybe it is an enjoyable treatise on why you should never have tea parties.

Absent Friends relies on an understated quality, which in many ways is its strongest feature. It uses subtleties and cross currents found amongst a group of friends, most of whom have known each other for years and whose lives are intermingled through sex, marriage, business and years of friendship. The group are come together as they attempt to bring comfort to an estranged friend who recently lost his fiancé. 

The play unfolds in Paul and Diana’s living room, as the friends gather for a tea party aimed at cheering up the wonderfully oblivious Colin, whom they had not seen for years. Diana is housewife with repressed dreams and he is a successful yet dissatisfied business man. Evelyn on the other hand generally disaffected and of questionable morality and contrasts wonderfully with Marge who is a conservative homemaker, being slowly driven toward madness by her own husband.

Shawna-Kae Burns as MargeThrough Colin’s reminiscences, the play reflects the differences between what you actually imagine your life will be and what it actually becomes, as the relationships he describes are a stark contrast to what they are now when time and the pressures of life have squeezed love into submission. 

While the production manages to be reasonably engaging, and Heap is able to pull out enough of its more universal themes to ensure that the play is relatable, and a few tweaks to the dialogue are brought in to aid this. However, Absent Friends is far more about character than plot, and despite having some high points the characterization never quite lives up to what it should be. This is particularly surprising as absent Friends has at its disposal a competent cast, yet it seems that all members have not yet delved into the deeper layers of the characters.

The production features Shanique Brown (Evelyn), Marsha-Ann Hay (Diana), Shawna-Kae Burns (Marge), Jean-Paul Menou (Paul), Canute Fagan (John) and Melward Morris (Colin).

Absent Friends manages to produce its fair share of amusement. However, it is unable to fully exploit the internal drama that occasionally raises its head but never fully bursts forth.Marsha-Ann Hay and Melward Morris

And a part of this has to do with casting, as two of the potentially strongest characters fall short. Morris does a decent job but he is a little ill-cast, which following on his wonderful performance in Departure in the Dark, is disappointing. So too is Hay, who is physically perfect for the role but is unable to handle Diana’s emotional complexity. The result is that Diana’s emotional turmoil manifests as overacting.

On the other hand, Menou and Brown deliver reasonably strong performances. Indeed, although Evelyn, possibly speaks the least, her presence is felt throughout. Burns also gives an engaging performance and occasionally delights as she blithely bustles toward either a nervous breakdown or her husband’s murder, which ever comes first.

Absent Friends is currently running at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts, UWI Mona and continues through to Sunday, August 31, 2014.