Abigail's Party

Mike Leigh

Theatre Royal Bath and Chocolate Factory Productions

The Lowry, Salford

From 29 April 2013 to 04 May 2013

Review by David Chadderton

Mike Leigh's 1977 play has an almost-Chekhovian backdrop of the expansion of the lower classes to usurp the territory of those who formerly ruled over them—although rather than the middle classes taking over control from the aristocracy, couples with working class accents are invading well-spoken suburbia bringing fixed but slightly distorted ideas of "correct" middle class tastes and behaviour.

Also like Chekhov, the play gives the impression of people behaving as they do in real life without the authorial imposition of a plot, but where in Chekhov this came about through very careful plot construction, here the lack of a joined-up narrative is more genuine, perhaps due to Leigh's famous improvisatory techniques for constructing his plays and films.

The party that we see is not Abigail's but Beverly and Laurence's civilised drinks party to welcome their new neighbours Angela and Tony. Abigail is Susan's 15-year-old daughter who is having a teenage party at her house while her nervous mother hides out at Beverly's. We don't see Abigail or her party, but we hear it and are told some of the more colourful events, which adds to Susan's discomfort.

The focus of the play is very much on Beverly, emphasised by her green dress against a set and costume design by Mike Britton that is otherwise all 70s yellow, orange and brown. Just as she dominates the stage picture, she dominates her home and guests, controlling them in less and less subtle ways as the drink flows until she is raucously bellowing orders at Laurence and groping Tony quite openly on the impromptu dance floor.

Hannah Waterman captures the character of Beverly perfectly, while Martin Marquez is just as good as the whiny-voiced Laurence who believes that serving olives and listening to classical music puts him a class above Beverly's cheese and pineapple on sticks and Demis Roussos.

Katie Lightfoot's Angela is more innocent but just as loud as Beverly, and Samuel James as Tony—an ex-footballer who "works in computers" at a time when such a thing was unusual and almost exotic—is a man of few words and a weary attitude to all that is going on around him. Emily Raymond's Susan completes the party, well-spoken and polite and therefore easily bullied by Beverly into "enjoying herself".

At the time it was written, this play was an image of contemporary suburbia, albeit a grotesquely distorted one, but it is now a period piece, a snapshot of a period of transition post-60s and pre-Thatcher, and a very funny one. Imagine the suburbia of the sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles with the bitterness and cruelty of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and you're coming somewhere close.

This production, while not too dissimilar to the original, brings out the best of the comedy with a superb cast and tight direction. It isn't a play that you'll want to see again and again, but it is certainly entertaining and worth a trip to Salford when it is produced as well as this.