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A BSENT FRIENDS

by Alan Ayckbourn

Ch ris Rowe discllsses his production for The CuffLey Players

PLOT &" CASTING Hilving or ig inally d ecided to direct A Bedf llll of Foreig ners by Dave Fr eman, it became a pparent that [ w, s go ing to be un able to ge t a cas t to~et h e r. The pl" y had been read an d e njoyed , but no matter which way [ looked [ was a man short. This being my firs t experieJ1ce of d irec ting any ne ove r th e age of 11 , I de ided that I wo ul d not tTy to ,1(t as well, so my only opti on was to chan ge th e plilY. Abselli Friends was nl\' second ch o ice, hav ing been origi na ll rejected b cause I l~lt it w, s rat he r !iho rt, so I arran gcd a rea d -through, ,1t the end of which I announced m y preferred cas t. The play is in two acts a nd cen tres around a g roup of ilcq ua inta nc '5 who invi te an o ld frie nd to a tea party to com fort him following th e dea th of his fiancee. Th ev have not seen him for some yea )::> and a rt' uncomfort"b le while th ev wait for his arrival. T h ' r I;tionships betw en themse lves are s trained and the tens ion causes the cracks to show. When Colin finaJly arriv es he p roves to be irrep ressibly ch f;! rful, which the o ther find hard to cope w ith. Colin has iI roman tic and rosc- tinted view of the.ir mutua l pa t and hi s insens iti ve re mini ce nces and a nalysis of th eir rela tio nships and character ca uses each pe rso n, in th ei r nwn way, to revea l th e ir unhilppincss. The plil)' calls for three. men and three women. Pau l und Diana are the married co uple in whose ho use the action tilkes placE'. Their rela tionship has deteriorated ove r the y ,~ ars . John, an old friend of Paul's, and his w ife Evelyn are in vited round for the tea party, w hich adds to the te ns ion because Diilna is, rig htl y, s uspicio us of Evely n and Pilul. Marge, w ife of another o ld friend, Gordon (who does not ilctm lly appear), provides the motherl y touch, a lthough she has her own difficulti es w ith her hypochondriac husba nd who is too ill to come to the party. And then there's Colin.. I was able to cas t th e women satisfacto rily, altho ugh the actress who was to play the characte r of Marge was to be away on hol iday for a w hile during rehea rsa ls. She promised to take her sc ript w ith her' For the men I h"d to "borrow" an ac tor from a nei g hbourin g group, w ho h ad gues ted for us befo re. A very co mpete nt a nd accomplished actor, Chris gave us his full es t comm it men t and I am

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most gratefu l to him. Finally, we had to II1 f, rm organisers of the Hertfo rd Fes ti va l of our change 0 pia) lI sua ll y ente r our Spnng pl.1. the Fes tival and it was a m atteT so me urgency that we le t t know o f o u r change. "\Ie ab o h to tell them that we were on h' to perfor m o n th e [ rid e \ a Saturday of Festi va l week, due the holiday arra ngemen ts of ne th e per fo rmers. W w ' 1'': m disappointed w hen we hea rd thaI we were not invited this year.

The fi rs t few rehea rsals wen t w 11 The play is quite sho rt, a total o! one. ho ur forty minute,';, so blocking was done rapidly and the act<r were able to concentrate on the ir lines and portrayals. The play ca ll.. for particul a rl y strong and vivid characterisations, so I gave guite d etailed not s at the end of each act as ideas occurred to me. (Wi th tIl<' change of play, I was only a few readings of the scr ipt ahea d of the> actors') Although we laughed a lot a t thE' reild-through, the play is n ot enormously funny just to read and really th ere is very little actio n in it. The pla y is about the six characte rs and the humour co mes from the way they a re played. Each one had to be larger than life yet comp letely believable, w hi ch is a difficult balance to achieve. There had to be an undercurrent of tension ri ght fwm the s tilrt and the action demanded a good pace, yet also some fairly lengthy pauses. As the actors grew in confid ence so the pau ses became longer, which work ed we ll and added to the humour. We worked a lot on exp ressions and reacti o ns, as m uch of the humo ur needed to be pinpointed by the reaction s of the others to so me thing tha t a charac ter was say ing. Body lang uage and g lan ces were espec ia lly impor tant and, as with mos t p lays, th e more we rehearsed the more we understood and the more we were able to add. Even during perfo rmance week, a cry of "Now I understand what that line's a ll abou t'" was often to be heard. (I was delighted when a fri end commented, after seeing th e final performa nce, "There was so much to see, so much go ing on, that [ d idn' t know w here to look." For a pla y that is os tensibly rather sta tic, that was praise indeed.)

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The play is set in the living room of "modern, executive house" in the mid-Seventies. I wanted a clean, open feel and we agreed that crea m willls with black furniture would achieve the right look. The decor needed to be (juite spilrse, with carefully selected pictures on the willis, one of which was painted by the father of Sally, our decor person. Modern technology came in handy, as one picture was scanned, enlarged, printed in sections and cmefully stuck together and framed. it

Our set designer based his plans on the set diagram in the back of the script and the rehearsal space was se t out accordingly. It soon trans pired that the stage directions called for a fair amount of action to take place at the back of the set when characters would be on the phone or Sitting on a low wall around it fireplace, a nd it was most difficult to prevent masking. I decided that a high stool would help, which would be by the phone at the back. This, combined with a low sofa downstage and two other stools by the bar, ensured that the characters could be seen fairly clearly mos t of the time and helped to vary the levels of the seated characters, giving a better visual effect. The final look, with trimphone, pot plants, pictures, fireplace and barm captured the period nicely.

LIGHTING Our lighting designer was definitely under-worked in this production. The lighting was very straightforward, with the only effect being that it got gloomier as the afternoon progressed and the rain set in outside. Nevertheless, Nick spent a lot of time ensuring that the view through the door to the garden went a suitably grey and dismal colour and that the light inside dimmed accordingly.

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COSTUMES.

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As the play is set in the Seventies, costumes were fairly easy to find amongst the Players' stock and in vilfious people's wardrobes. Of course, people hild diffe rent memories of what was worn during that period, but I was very pleased with the final look, es pecially that of the character Evelyn, who is described in the script as being a "heavily made-up, reasonably trendily dressed" girl. Her white boots appeared halfway through the dress rehearsal, courtesy of a member who dashed ten miles home to get them!

MUSIC At the end of the play Evelyn sings softy to her baby while othe r dialogue continues. I left it up to the actress what to sing, and was delighted when she started humming Top of the World by The Carpenters. The song is well known and is a great contrast to the mood of the play. Following this choice, we used ins pired ins trumental versions of Carpenters' songs for the opening of the acts and brought up Top of the World as the curtain closed and for the curta in call.

SPECIAL EFFEcrs AND ~ . PROPS _ The main job for the props team was to provide a sumptuous tea each night, but of course the crockery had to look right. Fortuna tel y, one of the tea m had the perfect tea-set at home, which was cream with a brown pattern. Stainless steel jugs and teapot completed the look most effectively. At one point, the baby in the pram has to start crying. This was relatively easy to organise, with a tape recorder being secreted amongst the blanket for one of the characters to switch on while ostensibly tucking in the blankets.

The pram also had to look right and we were fortunate that one of our team had an old Silver Cross in his loft! 111e only other special effect was the cream which has to be poured on P,lul's head. At the back of the script, the use of water and a shaving stick was recommended. The soap was grated and mixed with the water in a blender. It took a lot of experimentation to get the mixture right, and there was a worry that it would separate out, but our props person gave it a final whizz in the blender jus t before it was taken on stage and the final effect was very realistic.

CONCLUSION : -

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We had a very successful run. The actors brought out the cha racters most gratifyingly and the play was well received by our audiences. I sat a t th e ba('k and thoroughl y enjoyed each performance! We were telephoned on the Friday by the organisers of the Hertford Festival. One of their companies had dropped out due to illness and they had no reserve. Could we help? Initially we said no, because the original problem that we could only play on Friday or Saturday still applied . However, it later

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occurred to me that our Prompt, herself a very experienced actress, might agree to learn the part of Marge, in which case we could enter the Festival. She gallantly agreed and had learnt her words by the second revision rehearsa I. Re足 rehearsing for a festival can often be a tedious business, but having a new cast member gave us more interest and focus and kept everyone alert. We had high hopes for the Festival. 111e perfOlmances went very well indeed. A new flat was added to the set to cope wi th the increased width of the Hertford stage and the actors revelled in the ex tra space. The new Marge performed wonderfully, especially considering she had had only five rehearsals, and all was as I would have wished. The Adjudicator was generous in her praise, saying that we had certainly achieved the author's intention. The LUldertones were sharply pointed and the attention to detail had brought the period to life. We didn't win any trophies, but we were well satisfied with our efforts.

Absent Friends is not an easy play to do but 1 would recommend that other people give it a go. I think we got it about right and it proved very rewarding indeed.

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Absent Friends - November 1999