Mike Leigh’s seminal 1977 play charting a fraught suburban drinks party has become something of a cult classic. Since its original incarnation at the Hampstead Theatre and then subsequently on the BBC, there have been numerous (and mostly extremely successful) revivals at theatres not only in the UK but around the world too. However, there is an undeniable British flavour to proceedings that cannot be ignored: our class system, pent-up frustration, the suffocation of suburbia, forced politeness, hidden emotions – these are all noticeably present and Leigh explores them all with such a sincerity but lightness of touch that what first appears as a purely comic creation can suddenly lurch into darker and more sinister territory at the drop of a hat. The playwright’s unpredictability is undoubtedly what makes an evening such as this so thrilling and Lindsay Posner’s taut, wonderfully judged production certainly embraces this.
Played out on a simultaneously grim and gaudy seventies’ set (thanks to Mike Britton evoking the era down to the last detail), Posner offers up a squirmingly hilarious treat, at turns daft, mocking, ghastly, and toe-curlingly cringeworthy. However, his keenness to illuminate the tragic undertones, which lurk ominously in the shadows throughout, pays obvious dividends. Loyal fans will not be disappointed, where as newcomers should be winded by the experience.
Shimmeringly seductive in her sexy green dress, Jill Halfpenny makes the part of Beverly her own, while always nodding to Alison Steadman’s famous performance in the role. Sharp, controlling, teasing, and sensuous, Halfpenny cleverly suggests a woman that may be brutal and monstrous but who is trapped inside her own little world, including an achingly tense and loveless marriage. With deft comic timing, fluid physicality, and an ability to reveal the depth to Beverly, it is a technically superb, rich character study, full of angst and vulnerability.
Elsewhere, the supporting cast bats all the way down. Andy Nyman’s Laurence is an agonisingly frustrated, sweaty estate agent ready to implode, an implicitly racist and violent man desperately trying to hide the vitriol he holds for his wife and lamenting the loss of his chances at life. The neighbours are not much better: as Angela, Natalie Casey’s wonderfully funny performance shows a tactless, childish bore who reeks of naivety and speaks in monotones; Joe Absolom is perfectly awkward and monosyllabic as ex-footballer Tony, although I missed the character’s dangerous streak; and Susannah Harker’s meek and mild Sue suffers admirably (and hilariously) with the worries of her teenage daughter’s party, her company for the evening, and too much alcohol.
In some respects, Abigail’s Party has slightly dated since its premiere, but audiences still greet it with warmth and respect, and as a whole new wave of theatregoers experience this painfully brilliant play, I have no doubt that it will continue entertaining generations for many years to come. The greatest compliment I can pay the Menier’s production is to point out that I have seen the play on stage four times now, and this is the finest and freshest revival I can remember. Cheers, Tone! Who’s for a cheesy-pineapple one?
Currently playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London.