Alan Ayckbourn revival tickles critics

The cast of Absent Friends. Photo by Simon Turtle Tointon (top left) and Parkinson (top right) form part of the cast

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Critics have heaped praise on a West End revival of Sir Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends, described as "superb" and "hilarious" by one reviewer.

"There are many moments... when it becomes physically impossible to stop laughing," continued Charles Spencer in his four-star Telegraph critique.

"The acting is spot-on," said the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts in his review.

First staged in 1974, the play shows a group of friends throwing a tea party for a recently bereaved acquaintance.

The League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith plays the latter role, with other parts filled by Katherine Parkinson from The IT Crowd and former EastEnder turned Strictly Come Dancing winner Kara Tointon.

Absent Friends' first night at the Harold Pinter Theatre came on the same week Sir Alan's latest work, Neighbourhood Watch, came to another London playhouse.

The play, at the Richmond Theatre until Saturday, follows a group of residents of a respectable suburban area who take the law into their own hands.

The Guardian's Michael Billington was among a number of critics impressed by the "acute social observation" and "technical adroitness" of the author's earlier piece.

"There are times you are caught between laughter and tears in a way that makes comparisons with Chekhov seem far from fanciful," he wrote in his four-star assessment of Jeremy Herrin's production.

Matthew Cottle and Frances Grey in Neighbourhood Watch. Photo by Karl Andre Neighbourhood Watch, Sir Alan Ayckbourn's 75th play, is currently touring the UK

Simon Edge was less effusive in the Daily Express, finding fault with the author's "mean-minded caricatures" and "basic stage mechanics".

Yet this did not prevent him singling out Shearsmith and Parkinson for giving "warm, energetic performances that glue the evening together".

Absent Friends is the second production to be staged in the Harold Pinter Theatre since the venue - formerly the Comedy - was renamed.

The theatre struck reviewer Michael Coveney as an apt one for a play he considered as "not so much funny as cruel, disconcerting and, well, rather Harold Pinter in a suburban sort of way".

Alison Steadman, Jo Brand, Alan Davies and Sheridan Smith were among the celebrities who joined cast members at their opening night party on Thursday.

Absent Friends runs until 14 April, while Neighbourhood Watch continues its UK tour next week at the Theatre Royal in Bath.

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