Abigail's Party

Mike Leigh
London Classic Theatre
Theatre Royal, Winchester

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How some couples get together is the conundrum never fully explored in Mike Leigh’s savage critique of middle class values currently to be seen at the Theatre Royal, Winchester, in the excellent London Classic Theatre production directed by Michael Cabot.

In the beginning was Alison Steadman, the original Beverley at Hampstead. Today we have a barnstorming performance by Paula Jennings as the formidable master builder who can turn a comfortable domestic evening into a hideous mistake.

At her side is Helen Johns’ Angela, the shy, newly-married nurse who immediately emerges as the ideal partner in Beverly’s fireside reign of terror. These two converse in a language of the ‘seventies, wherein, of course, this play was born. In cadences which I found distinctly redolent of The Goons – more particularly the infantile tones of the near-forgotten Blubottle, the pair chant their way through booze, tobacco and mindless reminiscence in a social world long lost from their limited comprehension.

Across the room sits Angela’s new husband Tony (Benjamin Warren), a smouldering, athletic partner who once, we soon learn, played for Crystal Palace. Thus, at any moment, he may explode with violent expletives or worse – except that the reality is always less than predictable!

Beverly’s partner is the tense, overworked Laurence, a deceptively laid-back performance by Steve Deneen as a man emotionally as far from his wife as if he had never met her. And at times one feels he never truly did!

The picture is completed by the late arrival of the homely Susan (the excellent Pauline Whittaker), an attractive, well-balanced divorcee from down the road whose composure is simply too much for the frenetic duo sitting around her on the expensive couch. Except that Beverly never seems to sit, preferring to hover menacingly throughout.

In fact, it is Susan’s teenage daughter, Abigail, whose party is taking place throughout. Whence comes the title of our play if little else.

Michael Cabot’s deep understanding of this play, and of the plight of ordinary people living on the verge of self-destruction, is all over this production.

There is, too, a splendid period set by Geraldine Bunzl, complete with “real leather” chairs, open-plan kitchen and fitted carpetss, all of which catch the impressionable eye of Angela.

Suddenly, towards the conclusion of the play, comes a moment which, as they say, separates the men from the boys – leaving only Beverly with nothing she can usefully do.

"Abigail’s Party" runs at Winchester until 29th September and next week visits Epsom Playhouse, Harlow Playhouse, Buxton Opera House and the Palace Theatre, Redditch.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole

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