Review: Absent Friends (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Dec 4, 2014 – Jan 24, 2015.
Playwright: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Michelle Doake, Darren Gilshenan, Brian Meegan, Jessica Sullivan, Richard Sydenham, Queenie Van De Zandt
Images by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
Theatre is much more than storytelling, but the allure of a captivating narrative is hard to resist. In Alan Ayckbourn’s 1974 play Absent Friends, a vague context is set up as a springboard for innovative use of time and space, and in the case of director Mark Kilmurry’s efforts, to deliver an unusual and unexpected form of comedy that challenges our notions of performance and entertainment. Diana is throwing a tea party for an old friend who is mourning the death of his fiancée. The group comprises six distinct and diverse personalities, each independently fascinating but unified by a mode of presentation clearly established by Kilmurry.

The show is often absurd and slapstick in tone, and we find ourselves laughing at inane moments that have little to do with the story, but it strives for something that is ultimately quite precise and polished. The enjoyment of the work lies in the way human traits and behaviour are exaggerated so that we recognise parts of life that are usually too subtle to grip our attention. Small things matter, and the production moves focus away from key plot points to emphasise minute interchanges that occur between friends. It encourages us to appreciate friendship not for the impact they may have on major life events, but for the unadulterated bliss derived from physical company and emotional closeness. Kilmurry’s direction is brave, but not always effective. The work depends heavily on the cast’s chemistry with its audience and achieving that familiarity was hit and miss on opening night.

Darren Gilshenan plays Colin, the recently bereaved, with effervescent irony and a mischievous presence. The actor’s sense of humour is a perfect match for the farce that unfolds. We believe the tragedy that Colin experiences, but are also persuaded by Gilshenan’s comic charms and impeccable timing. In the role of Marge is Queenie Van De Zandt, whose considered and dynamic approach provides some of the show’s biggest laughs. Her work is enchanting, exacting and hilarious, with an edginess that provides a vibrant energy whenever she takes centre stage. Michelle Doake and Richard Sydenham both perform outrageously memorable scenes, but are less consistent with their level of engagement with viewers.

We all need to laugh, but what people consider funny is a mystery, and attempts at locating keys to that mystery requires constant reinvention. Absent Friends has an experimental spirit that lights up the theatre. It takes many risks, and while they may not all pay off, the work impresses with its exhilarating and original take on live performance. The play may be forty years-old, but the jokes it presents are fresh as a daisy.

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