Abigail's Party

Mike Leigh
New Ambassadors
(2002)

It is quite something to find a play without Hollywood superstars or theatrical dames selling out a West End theatre. Following its incredible success as the last play in Hampstead's 30 year old "temporary" Theatre, Mike Leigh's cult play is looking set to do just that.

This should not be too much of a surprise as, when it was produced on television twenty-five years ago, it attracted an audience of 16 million people. To this can be added his great success with films like Secrets and Lies and Topsy Turvy.

The character of the play seems very different to audiences attending David Grindley's new production. Today, 1977, when it was written and set, might seem like pre-history to those under thirty or a chance to wallow in nostalgia, almost like a sophisticated Saturday Night Fever or Grease, to the more mature. This was a happy time when minis didn't start and houses of the upwardly mobile cost £21,000.

This was the era when Demis Roussos competed with The Sex Pistols and kitsch was in vogue. You can easily spend ten minutes reminiscing over the component parts Jonathan Fensom's set and costumes . The living room contains browns and oranges in abundance with a coal-effect fire, a sunburst clock and assorted pieces of junk, as hostess Beverley in her emerald green low-cut dress, sets up her party to the accompaniment of Donna Summer.

Beverley likes the good life and will seemingly put up with a husband whom she doesn't love in order to live it. Laurence (Jeremy Swift) is a stressed, workaholic estate agent who is incapable of relaxing in his wife's company. They seem to love baiting each other and are happy to use their guests as weapons in their attempts to humiliate each other. All of this rings so true and everyone must have been caught cowering in the fallout of marital battles of this type, as the G & Ts flow too freely.

The poor victims are the new neighbours, bubbly nurse Angela (Rosie Cavaliero) and her taciturn husband, Tony ("he's not violent, he's just a bit nasty") who will never use three words where none will do. Steffan Rhodri is often hilarious doing little more than raising an eyebrow or grunting.

The last visitor is Susan, played by Wendy Nottingham. She is a timid divorcee and mother of the invisible punky Abigail. Her embarrassment at Beverley and Angela's increasingly sexual innuendo makes one wince in sympathy.

While the couples get on well enough at the start of the evening, once Beverley, who doesn't understand the meaning of embarrassment, has started flirting and close dancing with Tony, the humiliation proves too much for Laurence. This leads to much hilarity and an escalation in the warfare, with an almost inevitable result.

Along the way, there is one superb scene where, first, Angela dances a drunken combination of pogo and Mike Tyson, and then Tony and Beverley manage the hottest slow dance while Laurence and Susan simultaneously provide the frostiest.

David Grindley has resisted the temptation to play with the partly-improvised script that will be familiar to many members of his audience. He has worked hard on the body language and voices. Elizabeth Berrington's Beverley is a close match for the much-lauded originator of the role, Alison Steadman, with constant hair prinking and a remarkably irritating tone of voice.

There is also an underlying feeling of Leigh's pleasure at cruelly satirising a class of people for whom he seems to feel little sympathy. The play ends with them in disarray as The Sex Pistols remind us of the Queen's Silver Jubilee and play out with a chilling commentary on the characters as they constantly repeat the line "No future for you" from their version of the national anthem.

With hindsight, the characters may have had the last laugh, as Margaret Thatcher led the likes of Laurence and Beverley into unprecedented wealth and power over the next twenty years.

This revival is very welcome, with universally good acting and direction that ensures that, while Elizabeth Berrington's Beverley may be the ringmistress, the whole cast play off each other perfectly. This ensures that the realism that Leigh, the consummate master of social discomfort, strives for with his collaborative style, is achieved to great comic effect.

Abigail's Party is booking into April 2003 and may well have the ingredients needed for a long run. It even has its own website, www.abigailspartytheplay.com.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Steve Orme has reviewed the 2003/4 touring production.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher