BBC Radio 4 Extra, 13 May 2011
This 1978 production directed by Peter King was notable for the presence
of David Jason in the cast as the busybody Colin, who suffers an unexpected bereavement and comes to a party given by his
friend Di (Jo Manning Wilson) in an attempt to make him "feel better." As things turn out, Colin has come to terms with his
loss; he brings out photos of his deceased girlfriend Carol and passes them around the assembled group. He is so sure of himself
that he passes judgment on his friends, even if they do not welcome it. He is the perfect example of someone who wouldn't
hurt a fly but ends up causing pain to everyone around him. Jason suggested this quality through nuanced vocal delivery -
at times he sounded like a little dog whining for attention; on other occasions he spoke magisterially. He was prone to interrupt
others or continue his sentence without listening in any way to his interlocutors' comments. The best word to describe him,
in fact, would be "exhausting."
Absent Friends revisits familiar Ayckbourn territory, of the kind I've discussed
at length in previous reviews of his work on radio. Director King brought out the sense of desperation lurking at the heart
of many a suburban marriage: Di had spent years looking after her husband Paul (Anthony Jackson), and received no thanks for
her efforts. It was hardly surprising she should talk with regret about lost aspiration. In a lengthy soliloquy she recalled
a time in her childhood when her mother bought her a coat she had coveted for a long time; when she put it on she felt she
looked like "nothing on earth." For Di this incident was typical of a life where she had been told to marry and have children,
when all she wanted to do was to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Di repeated the phrase over and over again, her voice
becoming more and more strangulated until she had a fit of hysterics. Her dreams might seem absurd, but the sense of loss
was palpabale; like many a suburban home-maker she had been forced into a role she did not want to play and destroyed her
life in the process.
From then on, the production moved swiftly toward an inevitable denouement.
The party ended: Colin announced hesitantly that he "must be going," while the others parted with the usual expressions of
insincere friendship ("come and see us sometime," "take care," "nice to have seen you.") They were all prisoners of their
prosperous lives, in which no one liked to reveal their true feelings for fear of appearing weak if they did so. It was Di's
tragedy that she could no longer keep up this facade.