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Darren Gilshenan, Brian Meegan and Richard Sydenham. All images: Katy Green Loughrey.

THEATRE: 11 DECEMBER 2014

By JOHN ROZENTALS

Absent Friends, by Alan Ayckbourn | Directed by Mark Kilmurry

Ensemble Theatre | Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, Sydney | Until 24 January

How appropriate that Ensemble Theatre’s next offering after Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends will be David Williamson’s Dream Home.

Though they hail from opposite ends of the globe — Ayckbourn from England, Williamson from Australia — I always find myself noting the similarities in their work.

They’re both obviously incredibly prolific, with Ayckbourn’s 78 plays outnumbering Williamson’s 50-odd, which have been augmented by substantial film and television writing.

But there’s much more to the similarity. Both have an innate talent for getting under the skins of their respective middle classes and extracting the last drop of delicious black humour from their foibles.

In this case, Colin (Darren Gilshenan), who has been away for a while and recently lost his beloved fiancée Carol in a drowning mishap, is invited to afternoon tea by two old friends, the womanising and financially successful Paul (Richard Sydenham) and his suspicious, desperately lonely wife Diana (Michelle Doake).

Another couple of old friends are also there — the larger than life Marge (Queenie van de Zandt), whose hypercondriac, accident-riddled husband Gordon makes occasional hilarious appearances via the phone from his sick bed; and the nervy (ADHD-afflicted?) John (Brian Meegan), whose bored and humourless new wife Evelyn (Jessica Sullivan) snipes from the sidelines and has clearly had an unsatisfactory fling with Paul in the back seat of his car.

They’re there to comfort Colin but his self-obsessed presence draws the worst out of already unstable relationships and the results certainly aren’t pretty, with Ayckbourn and director Mark Kilmurry successfully walking the fine line between genuine drama and farcical humour-laden caricature.

I’m always impressed how Ensemble Theatre inevitably seems to successfully turn its relatively small, tight stage into such effective, quite different spaces. This time designer Anna Gardiner has masterminded a wonderfully evocative recreation of a 1970s living room.

Add some brilliant costuming from Catherine Capolupo and there was certainly enough reality to induce a cringe from those who remember the decade’s excesses. Did we really lack that much taste? I guess so, but you must remember that they were the years of Gary Glitter et al.

An excellent production of an Alan Ayckbourn gem.

Jessica Sullivan

Richard Sydenham and Nichelle Doake.

Queenie van de Zandt.