Absent Friends (2015)

This interview is with Michael Cabot, Artistic Director of London Classic Theatre, and was conducted to promote the company's 2015 tour of Absent Friends.

Michael Cabot: Absent Friends premièred at the Library Theatre, Scarborough in June 1974. What are your memories of that production and how the first audiences responded to the play?
Alan Ayckbourn: I remember being rather nervous at the time. It was quite a departure for me at that stage of my career. It was very low key compared with earlier plays like Absurd Person Singular, How The Other Half Loves or The Norman Conquests. One of its central themes also concerns death of a loved one, possibly not the most obvious topic for a comedy at that time. As I watched the audience troop up the stairs for the first performance at the Scarborough Library Theatre, I noted that a high proportion of them were elderly. What were they going to make of it? In the event it was a huge success. No one was more surprised than the author.

Your were in your mid-thirties when you wrote Absent Friends and the characters in the play are at a similar stage in their lives. Through such a long and distinguished career, how much do you feel your age and life experience at the time of writing has impacted on your work?
In general, as many have observed, the work has gradually grown darker in tone. I put this down less to an increasing pessimism about human nature brought about by old age (though there’s certainly a bit of that) but more to the plays favouring exploration of character over plot. The deeper you dig, the darker it tends to get.

It has been said that all the characters, perhaps with the exception of Colin, are fairly unpleasant. As a playwright, do you like your characters, even those who seem to have no redeeming features?
I don’t agree at all. They all have their faults as people. There are victims in the women, Diana and Marge and even in Evelyn, who has to need our sympathy married as she is to an amiable wally like John. I concede Paul isn’t the most pleasant of men and Colin is a nightmare. Imagine spending an afternoon alone with him! But four out of six isn’t bad. Besides, I love all my characters even the awful ones. If you don’t start out writing them with affection, they’ll never hope to breathe off the page. It’s like how an actor approaches a new character, however awful they appear, you need to find something to love in them.

As a very early example of ‘comedy of embarrassment’, made so popular in recent years with The Office and its imitators, Absent Friends was very much ahead of its time. Were you aware that you were breaking new ground?
No, just looking around for a new approach, fresh characters, same as I have always done. My nightmare is always a horror of repeating myself. But after 79 plays, my options are narrowing!

Absent Friends is essentially a domestic drama where nothing really happens, a brave decision for a playwright to make. Were you at any stage tempted to divert from this path and introduce more ‘action’ into the play?
Not really. That was never my intention as I have already explained.

In terms of the characters, what do think lies ahead for them beyond the end of the play? Do you think any of the marriages would survive?
I think most of them will but whether they should is a different matter. Marge will stay with Gordon certainly, Di will stick with Paul for, so she will claim, the sake of the children. Evelyn might well leave John and take the baby with her but then she’s another generation. Only Colin had the perfect partnership, poor bloke.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.