Abigail's Party

It’s a mark of how well a play is rooted in a particular era that the mere mention of Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew perfume can send ripples of mirth throughout the auditorium to an elderly generation that knowingly nudged each other and in many cases passed comment. There were younger and maybe some older people seeing Abigail’s Party for the first time, no doubt, but the overwhelming impression was something of a reunion of Mike Leigh’s devotees who had turned out in large numbers to celebrate his 1977 triumph and revive memories of that distinctive decade.

A safe revival that exposes stifling, shallow and seemingly empty relationships.

Lee Newby’s set and costume design provides plenty of period reminders that are rooted in the script. Dominated by the ‘real leather’ couch and matching chairs, the room has the essentials of 1970s decor and equipment. Every home needed a record player with an adjustable speed setting to listen to the sounds of Demis Roussos and Elvis Presley from large LP records or smaller EPs and 45s. The lava lamp and its fibre optic counterpart were de rigueur and in an age of rampant smoking most homes had a pedestal ashtray. All these icons of the age are visible along with the yellow cabinet doors in the kitchen which perfectly match the cheesy-pineapple on sticks, without which no social event was complete. With the room and the peanuts ready, along with ample drinks set atop the fashionable cocktail cabinet, the party for the flawed neighbours can start to run against the background noise of Abigail’s party just down the road.

Beverly Moss (Melanie Gutteridge) breezes in with an air of false sophistication dressed in a black halterneck with orange and pink floral prints befitting an over-the-top hostess. Gutteridge commands with ease and mocks mercilessly. Much of the humour comes from her inappropriate behaviour and social ineptitude which she delivers with ironic ignorance of what she is doing. She stands out in overwhelming contrast to her hen-pecked husband, Laurence (Christopher Staines). Staines, in his drab grey suit, that befits his dreary job as an estate agent, to which he is devoted, establishes the marital mismatch from the outset. Always struggling to accommodate his wife he nevertheless reveals the breaking points at which even he can stand her no longer and summons the energy to put his foot down. Tony (Liam Bergin) is actually more to Beverly’s taste, as she unashamedly demonstrates on several occasions during the course of the evening.

With his flowing hair and not too-neatly trimmed beard, Bergin certainly has more of the desirable 70s look of younger man about him. Yet only three years into his marriage he betrays the symptoms of Laurence’s condition and seems driven to silence in the face of a barrage of mindless chatter from his wife Angela (Amy Downham). In his withdrawn demeanour and extended disappearance from the party Bergin also suggests there might be something quite distasteful about Tony lurking beneath the surface. Angela’s style of domination is different but produces a similar effect. Downham manages to capture both her naive silliness and her practicality as a nurse. Meanwhile, somewhat stunned by the endless banter, isolated Susan (Susie Emmett) quietly observes. Emmett calmly portrays the out-of-place guest, suffering the bullying of the hostess while worrying about what’s going on at her daughter’s party.

The tension onstage created by this awkward gathering of disparate, vulnerable individuals, two tense married couples and a jilted middle-aged woman, wafts into the auditorium. It is precisely the party for which you would not want an invitation and if forced to attend would seek ways to escape upon arrival. Director Douglas Rintoul has mounted a safe revival that exposes stifling, shallow and seemingly empty relationships. Beneath all the humour lie lives that lack the love and affection they crave. It certainly highlights the sardonic and the bleak content but perhaps could do with even more with humour, especially when it is most needed in that complex ending which didn’t quite hold together.

Leigh coined the phrase ‘theoretical Romford’ to describe the play’s location, so where better to see in than in the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch. It’s also worth taking in Abi, a monologue that that provides a contemporary follow-up to the original.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

Beverly and husband Laurence are entertaining their newlywed neighbours. Joining them is twitchy divorcee Sue, banished from the party of her teenage daughter. Over a stack of cheesy-pineapple sticks, small talk and splashes of alcohol, the appalling host’s soiree soon descends into chaos. As the sniping begins, this delicious comedy cracks open social climbing suburbia to savagely funny effect.

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