Do I laugh, do I cry? Absent Friends packs a low punch as it reveals the sad undercurrents in the relationships between seven friends. But such is Alan Ayckbourn’s sensitive touch, his wit so smart, his characters writ larger than life, that this play is an entertaining romp. It also makes you reflect on life, love and loyalty among the laughter.

 Here we are in a well-to-do 1970s lounge. And if you are of a certain age, it will take you back there – the leather-look sofa, backlit ornament shelves, memorable wallpaper, shaggy rug. The coffee table is laid for a polite tea party, complete with pineapple and cheese on sticks stuck into a grapefruit.

 Three couples are getting together to offer sympathy to Colin, whose fiancee drowned three months ago. Before he arrives, we begin to get glimpses into the relationships within their marriages and with one another. One husband doesn’t appear – he is sick at home, and as his childless wife talks about him, and to him on the phone, we realise he is far more demanding than any child.

 The drama is played out in real time, a device which helps draw us in to the interactions as frayed relationships threaten to tear apart.

 The six characters on stage are quickly defined in broad strokes by a talented cast: Diana, beautifully played by Lisa Burrows as the would-be gracious hostess but hiding huge disappointments; the monosyllabic Evelyn (Kathryn Ritchie), whose laconic non-engagement in the party raises lots of laughs; successful bully Paul (Kevin Drury) who makes life difficult for everyone; Marge, whose winsome silliness covering huge sadness, well portrayed by Susie Emmett, left me in that smile/cry dilemma; and John (John Dorney), a tragi-comic who can’t keep still as he tries to cope with disappointments in marriage and work.

 Then Colin arrives into the mix. He’s the one they are sorry for. Might he turn out to be not so unlucky after all? He plays the part perfectly, soft and sweet though not too perceptive about those around him.

 More than tea is brewing as they pass round the sandwiches and try to console Colin, while the old jealousies and infidelities continue to simmer beneath the surface before erupting. What a tea party.

 This play by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn is being toured once again by London Classic Theatre, whose director Michael Cabot has kept it firmly in its 70s setting. It becomes almost a social commentary on gender relations in that decade, as well as a reflection on love and marriage that finds resonance in any. Ayckbourn spoke of the comedy of embarrassment: a perfect summing up of this play. Well worth seeing.

Absent Friends continues at the Theatre Royal Windsor until Saturday October 10.

Review by Sandra Carter