Melissa Blease reviews Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh, at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 11 March
Cheese and pineapple on sticks. “Would you like a little top-up, Ange?” Fibre optic coffee table lamps. “Beaujolais – oh, fantastic; I’ll just pop it in the fridge.” Donna Summer. “Have you ever tried pilchard curry? It’s a very economical dish.” Demis Roussos. “Just relax, and say to yourself: I’ve got beautiful lips.”
Need I go on? Not really: you know exactly where we are: we’re at Abigail’s Party – or rather, we’re just down the road at Beverly and Laurence’s house, while Susan’s teenage daughter is having the actual party of the title. New neighbours Tony and Angela have been invited too.
In fact, we all have… and we’ve been returning to various revivals of this cringingly uncomfortable, wince-inducingly awkward comedy of manners set in suburban London (“theoretically somewhere such as Romford,” according to writer Mike Leigh) in the 1970s for 40 years now. So if it’s so cringingly uncomfortable and wince-inducingly awkward, what, exactly, has kept us coming back?
Okay, for those of us of a certain vintage, there’s a heady blast of nostalgia to revel in, from clothes (gaudy-hued synthetics for women; coffee-coloured leisure suits for men) to interior dec (shag-pile carpets; textured wallpaper) to that music and those party nibbles. There’s also something deliciously evil about being privy to – but not directly involved in – the kind of claustrophobic, on-the-verge-of-acrimonious, wrong-on-many-levels social gathering such as the one we’re witnessing.
And oh yes indeed, Mike Leigh is a master of the art of having his characters say so much about everything while barely uttering a single word (Angela’s monosyllabic, disenchanted husband Tony being the most effective case in point here.) But for modern audiences now over-familiar with such a premise – from The Royle Ramily and Shameless to The Office by way of pretty much all of Steve Coogan’s best improvised/observational comedy – one can’t help thinking that, despite the admirable charms of this particular revival, it’s all a little bit dated.
This production is, however, a thoroughly modern experience on many levels, compelling from the get-go and still fervently fresh in execution despite being respectfully close to the original airings. Charlotte Mills is utterly compelling as naïve nurse Angela, who blithely allows the quickfire bullets of host Beverly’s snide, malevolent asides to wash over her even more smoothly than the multiple gin and tonics she downs while her husband Tony (Ciarán Owens) sinks further and further into subtly brutish despondency.
Rose Keegan as Abigail’s anxious, circumspect mum Susan cleverly commands both sympathy and irritation in equal measure, while Ben Caplan as Beverly’s long-suffering husband Laurence is as belligerently boorish as an estate agent on the verge of a heart attack can be.
And while it’s all going on, Amanda Abbington as Beverly slinks, floats, vamps, cajoles, flirts, manipulates and chain-smokes her way into the centre of attention. While her performance in the first half may be a little underpowered at key moments, she brings one of the most nauseatingly insincere, oleaginous, self-pitying characters back to life in the play’s closing scenes with aplomb… and I managed to summarise all that without making a single reference to Alison Steadman’s iconic performance in the play’s now legendary 1977 BBC TV version.
Susan’s daughter’s party may be long since be over, but the hangover is yet to set in on what still remains an undisputed theatrical classic.