Cheese and pineapple on sticks. “Would you like a little top-up, Ange?” Fibre optic lamps. “Beaujolais – oh, fantastic; I’ll just pop it in the fridge.” Nylon frocks. “Just relax, and say to yourself: I’ve got beautiful lips”. Ah, we can only be at Abigail’s Party – or rather, just down the road at Beverly and Laurence’s house, while Susan’s teenage daughter is having the actual, titular party. New neighbours Tony and Angela have been invited too. In fact, we all have… and we’ve been returning to various revivals of this uncomfortable, awkward, dark comedy of manners set in 1970s suburban London for almost 40 years.
There’s something deliciously voyeuristic about being privy to – but not directly involved in – the kind of claustrophobic, on-the-verge-of-acrimonious, wrong-on-many-levels social gathering we’re witnessing. Modern audiences may well be over-familiar with such a premise; all manner of sitcoms from The Royle Family and Shameless to The Office have tried – and largely succeeded – in allowing us to be flies on the wall at similarly discomforting gatherings. But Abigail’s Party is the original, archetypal cringe-fest.
This brand new London Theatre Company production feels fervently fresh in execution while remaining respectfully close to the source material. Rather than taking the easy route of playing their roles just for laughs, director Michael Cabot’s ensemble cast bring wholly convincing rapport and a profound sense of empathy to characters who, despite their often over-exaggerated traits and foibles, are clearly merely all-too-human; and the result is a triumphant, exhilarating revival of an iconic British theatre masterpiece.
Despite the script being laden with so many memorable lines, writer Mike Leigh is the master of the art of having his characters say so much while barely uttering a single word; never, for example, has the seemingly innocuous line “d’you want me to make you a little sandwich?” carried so much significance that has nothing at all to do with a quick snack – and this cast have clearly mastered the fine art of tone, pace and gesture that hold a Leigh script together.
Tom Richardson brings maximum nuance to the role of Beverly’s estate agent husband Laurence, gradually revealing the disappointment and frustration behind his superficial boorishness. Alice De-Warrenne is a gloriously gauche but ultimately utterly loveable Angela (“Ange”), the naïve nurse/neighbour who blithely allows the quickfire bullets of Beverly’s snide asides to wash over her even more smoothly than the multiple gin and tonics she downs while her taciturn husband Tony (the skilfully deadpan George Readshaw) sinks further and further into inscrutably sullen despondency. Meanwhile, Jo Castleton as Abigail’s anxious, circumspect mum Susan commands both sympathy and irritation in equal measure while enduring barrages of intrusive, unwanted attention from her fellow guests.
And of course, while it’s all going on, Rebecca Birch’s Beverly cajoles, flirts, manipulates and chain-smokes her way into the heart of the action at all times, bringing one of the most nauseatingly insincere yet – and don’t be ashamed to admit this – relatable characters to fully-rounded, coherent life, never more so than in the play’s dramatic closing scenes… and I managed to summarise all that without making a single reference to Alison Steadman’s iconic performance in the now legendary TV version; if Birch, who emphatically makes the role her own, didn’t reference Steadman, why should I? And if you’re wondering if Beverly’s classic Demis Roussos ‘moment’ got lost along the way, it didn’t; José Feliciano’s songs (used in this production) were replaced by Roussos in the 1977 BBC TV Play for Today version for copyright reasons, so the soundtrack the party grooves along to here is, in fact, authentic to Leigh’s intentions.
If you read (and think) between the lines, Abigail’s Party is a tragedy rather than a farce and, as Leigh himself has said, a lamentation on the spirit-crushing obligations of social mores, not a sneer at the aspirations of the ‘new’ middle classes.
Today, popping a bottle of Beaujolais in the fridge isn’t quite the faux pas it may have seemed back in the 70s. But in terms of perceived manners, ‘informal’ formalities and the rituals of hosting, little else has changed; who can honestly say that they’re not “just a little bit Beverly” when they invite the neighbours around for drinks on a Saturday night?