Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Theatre review: Abigail's Party

Set designers must love plays from the 1970s, as they always dive in with gusto to throw as much orange-and-brown tat as possible onto the stage. Living rooms of the period were, in my memory, crammed full of bizarre knick-knacks, but is that accurate or just the fact that when we see living rooms decorated for the period, every cliché of the decade appears in them because that's funnier? Mike Britton is the designer in the 70s toybox this time, and if there's a lot of stuff in the front room of Laurence and Beverley, much of it is in fact right there in Mike Leigh's script in the suburban passive-aggressive classic, Abigail's Party. Following huge success with Noises Off, Lindsay Posner now directs a darker, more acidic comedy, but with similarly strong results.

Posner has assembled a strong cast: Jill Halfpenny and Andy Nyman are the bickering, aspirational Bev and Laurence, Halfpenny resisting the temptation to try and copy Alison Steadman's original performance, which I've seen backfire in revivals of this play before. On a sunny Saturday evening they're having new neighbours round for drinks - nurse Angela (Natalie Casey) and her monosyllabic husband Tony (Joe Absolom,) plus divorced Sue (Susannah Harker) from next door: Sue's 15-year-old daughter Abigail is having a party, and her mother's mainly here to stay out of her way. I mentioned the 1970s details partly because although they do get a few laughs, the cheese-and-pineapple on sticks and the Demis Roussos fixation aren't what Abigail's Party is all about. Posner knows this and the cast looks at the material as fresh, the real familiarity is with the characters and their relationships, not the nostalgia effect.

Halfpenny is flirtatious and overbearing as Bev, Nyman matches her with his workaholic estate agent, Absolom's suitably gruff and Harker's Sue nervous and a bit lost among the social games. But however good the rest of the cast are, it's hard to look away from Natalie Casey for a minute. Her doll-like, unblinking, borderline-autistic Ange is drawn in broad comic strokes but with lots of tiny moments of subtlety (I loved her almost imperceptibly glowing with pleasure when her usually-cold husband comes to her defence.) Casey provides many of the laughs but the whole production is full of comedy that always teeters on the brink of tragedy and despair. I'd still be interested in a production that ditched the period trimmings but even with them intact what's at the play's heart is Leigh's ability to look at the frostiness behind apparently successful relationships, but then to look deeper again and find the genuine affection beneath the frostiness.

Abigail's Party by Mike Leigh is booking until the 21st of April at the Menier Chocolate Factory (returns only, although there seem to be attempts being made to extend or transfer) and from the 23rd to the 28th of April at the Theatre Royal, Bath.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes including interval.


  1. OOooh. Now I actually want to go and see that. Ta for the write up.

    1. I'll let you know if there's news of a transfer.