Abigail's Party

Mike Leigh

Nottingham Theatre Royal, and touring

(2004)

Review by Steve Orme

You could hear the comments reverberating around the auditorium as the audience caught sight of Jonathan Fensom's homely, nostalgic set: "We used to have a dining table/room divider/lamp just like that."

While the setting of Mike Leigh's observational comedy is pure 1977, its substance is very much today. After all, the underlying problems that caused breakdowns in relationships 27 years ago are no different from the difficulties everyone faces today. In fact there is arguably even more poignancy in 2004; some of the characters could be straight from television reality programmes such as Neighbours From Hell.

Abigail's Party was first produced at Hampstead Theatre and was subsequently shown on the BBC, attracting an audience of more than 16 million. More people tuned into that TV play than any other - a record which has yet to be broken.

Now Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Hampstead Theatre Productions are putting on Abigail's Party around the country. Thankfully director David Grindley has made few changes to a winning formula.

The play features a get-together hosted by Laurence and Beverly who want more to show off their home than welcome new neighbours Angela and Tony to their supposedly suburban paradise. They also invite divorced Sue who needs to get out of her house for the evening as her daughter Abigail is celebrating her 15th birthday with a riotous party.

From the moment Lizzy McInnerny starts dancing ostentatiously to Donna Summer's Love To Love You Baby, you just know she's going to be "great, fantastic" as irritating, shallow, status-seeking Beverly. She sustains the persona throughout, with an annoying voice, fussy demeanour and short temper, particularly with her workaholic estate agent husband.

She's the woman you'd want to be with for the shortest possible time as her social graces aren't all they should be; you wince when she continually plies everyone with drinks; you cringe when she puts a bottle of Beaujolais in the fridge; and you almost choke when she sprays Estee Lauder Youth Dew everywhere after Sue has been sick.

Huw Higginson, known for a long stretch as PC George Garfield in The Bill, looks totally different as Laurence, hair over his collar and droopy moustache giving him a real '70s air. He is excellent as the stressed-out know-all, a measured performance as he looks increasingly ill before having a heart attack.

Steffan Rhodri is sufficiently dour as former footballer Tony who quickly gets bored with the women's conversation and later has his ego boosted when Bev flirts with him while they're dancing.

Perhaps Elizabeth Hopley might have been more prim or dizzy as nurse Ange. But she is totally convincing when she becomes drunk and masterfully takes charge to administer first aid to the dying Laurence.

Liz Crowther's Sue is a perfect foil for the stronger characters as she continually has to cope with the tactless rantings of her neighbours. She does wonders with a meaningful look in the right place.

Grindley's direction retains the magic of the original, even down to all the embarrassing pauses.

If future productions are as good as this, there's no doubt Abigail's Party will still be running in another 27 years.

"Abigail's Party" tours to Liverpool, Plymouth, Oxford, Malvern, Woking and Glasgow until April 10th

Philip Fisher reviewed the Hampstead production at the New Ambassadors in 2002.