Following closely in the footsteps of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends, Lindsay Posner’s revival of Abigail’s Party takes us back in time once again to an era when wallpaper made you dizzy and fibre optic lamps were the latest must-have accessory.
Mike Britton appears to have based the colour scheme for this house in 70s ‘theoretical Romford’ on the bright orange-brown tan for which Essex is so renowned today. If you add to this a few plates of nibbles, a hell of a lot of gin and the dulcet tones of Demis Roussos, you have the ingredients for… an interesting gathering.
It is unlikely you will ever see a more assorted bunch of people on stage at the Wyndham’s theatre or indeed on the reality TV show Big Brother. In fact, when Mike Leigh first dreamt up the idea of putting these individuals in a room together, it was as if he were planning a similar sort of social experiment himself.
Set in the living room of Beverly and Laurence’s suburban home, the gruesome get-together at the centre of Leigh’s 1977 comedy isn’t what you’d expect from a play entitled Abigail’s Party. While 15-year-old Abigail’s festivities remain safely on the other side of the wall, the neighbourly drinks party we are faced with reveals the comic and chaotic lives of five adults who make the life of even the most deeply troubled of teenagers look like a walk in the park.
Angela and Tony, an unlikely couple from one of ‘the smaller houses’ on the street, are worlds apart from middle class divorcee Sue, who would almost certainly feel more at home with the crowd of raving teenagers at her daughter’s shindig than she does at Beverly’s gathering. Then there’s Beverly herself, a house proud hostess whose first instinct upon being presented with a bottle of red wine is to put it in the fridge, and her husband Laurence, whose vibrant personality is still no match for her own overwhelming presence.
Natalie Casey oozes hilarity as the graceless Ange who conjures silences quicker than her host does gin and tonics, while Joe Absolom’s pent-up performance as her hot-tempered husband does little to fill the conversation’s gaping holes with his sporadic grunts of affirmation. The only polite thing left for Susannah Harker’s sweet-spoken Sue to do is to reach for her glass, but it is only to her detriment that she attempts to escape from her barbaric surroundings in such a way.
The gathering is socially awkward to say the least. Andy Nyman is endearing as the loveable Laurence who does his best to keep the party going, but it is Jill Halfpenny’s Beverly who comes to the fore, like the cocktail stick through her cheese and pineapple nibbles, holding it all together; her seductive advances and ridiculous catchphrases filling the awkward silences.
It is undeniably a hilarious predicament of a party but it is the underlying tragedy in these individuals’ lives that permeates the production. After all, unhappy marriages and unfulfilled lives remain at the heart of Leigh’s comedy.