Favourite Things: Absent Friends

We’ve got a bit of a change of format this week with Favourite Things.

Rather than focusing on several items from the Ayckbourn Archive relating to each Ayckbourn play in future blogs, we’ll just be putting one item under the microscope and explaining both its significance and why it appeals to me as an Archivist.

Following the seminal trilogy The Norman Conquests, Alan Ayckbourn wrote his miniature, Absent Friends. Almost diametrically opposite to The Norman Conquests in ambition, this is a single set play set in real-time (the amount of time which elapses for the characters is the same amount of time which elapses for the audience). Alan considers it a highly significant step in his career and a playwright.

Original poster art for the world premiere of Absent Friends at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1974 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

As anyone who has read my book Unseen Ayckbourn will know, there are some extensive Ayckbourn notes on the concept of Absent Friends – which hint at a play which could have been substantially different to the one we know today. All of which could easily have been my subject for today’s blog. But just for sheer incredulity and the sort of challenges live theatre can unexpectedly throw up, we’re looking at a little known revival of the play by Alan Ayckbourn in 1981.

That year saw Alan Ayckbourn premiere his new play Way Upstream, arguably his most ambitious work yet, which involved flooding the Scarborough stage to create a ‘river’ for his cabin-cruiser-set play. What’s little known is Alan and the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round toured the production from Scarborough that year.

To Houston.

Because that’s obviously what you do with the most technically ambitious show ever seen at the SJT at that time. Not only did Way Upstream tour (rather successfully one might add) across the Atlantic, it was also produced in repertory with a revival of Absent Friends, directed by Alan Ayckbourn. This production was not performed at the playwright’s home theatre and was only seen in Houston – it marked the first time the playwright would direct the play since its world premiere in 1974 and he would not direct it again until 1997.

Featuring the same company as Way Upstream – obviously not the same set – this revival proved to be a great success with audiences at the Alley Theatre, Houston. And not only the human audiences. But an altogether unexpected visitor….

Show reports for Alan Ayckbourn’s 1981 revival of Absent Friends at the Alley Theatre, Houston (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

These are actual show reports from 19 March 1981 at the Alley Theatre held in The Bob Watson Archive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. For those struggling to decipher the handwriting, here’s a transcript:

“Mr Bowerman reported seeing cockroaches in the sandwiches during Act One. They will be changed at the interval and step [sic] will be taken to get round this problem.”

This was followed by a report from the following day, which reads:

“Polystyrene sandwiches used for Act One to try and avoid roaches.”

In all my years as an Archivist, I think that has to be one of the most unusual – and disturbing – show reports I have ever read! Which obviously makes it something I’m rather fond of.

It also highlights some of the unusual things actors and stage management teams have to cope with. Fortunately, the sandwiches aren’t passed around and eaten until the opening of Act II so presumably the fake food was substituted for real sandwiches at the last minute with the hope the actors would get to them before the cockroaches! Sadly, it’s not recorded if this solved the problem or whether the unexpected Ayckbourn fans returned.

Like the vast majority of show reports I’ve read as Archivist, it’s also the rather stoic and straight-forward way it’s reported and the knowledge that whatever the problem, it’ll be solved.

That’s my choice for this week, a case of both absent and unexpected friends!

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