fri 17/09/2021

Abigail's Party, Menier Chocolate Factory | reviews, news & interviews

Abigail's Party, Menier Chocolate Factory

Abigail's Party, Menier Chocolate Factory

Mike Leigh's Seventies warhorse cannot quite escape the long shadow of its original incarnation

'Abigail's Party': a pitiless set of character studies in search of a play?Catherine Ashmore

Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party: comedy classic or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with added sneering? Ever since its first appearance on stage in 1977 and its subsequent record-breaking broadcast as a BBC Play for Today with an eye-widening 16 million viewers (not to mention those watching the subsequent DVD), there has been disagreement.

Depending on your viewpoint, Lindsay Posner’s competent new production lives either up or down to your expectations. What it won’t do is make converts in either direction.

This ferocious comedy which made Mike Leigh’s name is short on plot but big on situation. A sitcom, however, it’s not: it’s too savage. That situation, of course, is a party but Leigh craftily wrongfoots audiences since the ghastly one we’re glued to isn’t that of the title. Unseen Abigail is the 15-year-old having a noisy, not-so-teenage bash next door. The one we’re watching is being held – in a vice-like grip –  by former beautician Beverly (Jill Halfpenny, pictured below with Joe Absolom). She invites Abigail’s meek mother Sue (Susannah Harker) round for the evening so she can escape her daughter’s nightmarish gathering, a serious case of frying pans and fires.

The perspective of 35 years on puts the characters and the play into inverted commas

Beverly’s estate-agent husband Laurence (Andy Nyman) is on hand – if he can stop working for a second – to hand round the drinks and snacks and she’s also invited new neighbours Angela (Natalie Casey) and her taciturn, ex-footballer husband Tony (Absolom). The more the gin-and-tonics flow, the more the loveless marriages are exposed. The bitterness and bad behaviour starts out corrosive and ends up fatal.

From the geometric-patterned orange wallpaper to the brown G-plan room-divider and Sue’s faintly tweedy pleated skirt, Posner’s production is blessed with Mike Britton’s perfectly dated set and costumes. And therein lies the first problem. Back then, this wasn’t a period piece; it was live commentary from the suburban frontline. What was intended to look like the height of pretentiousness – a fibre-optic lamp: how thrillingly vulgar! – now looks like retro-chic. More worryingly still, the perspective of 35 years on puts the characters and the play into inverted commas.

To an extent, this is unavoidable since the actors are saddled with the task of recreating not just the roles but the original hallowed performances. Slinky as a cobra but less generous, Jill Halfpenny is leaner and meaner than the role’s creator Alison Steadman and sets off by banishing Steadman’s much-imitated delivery. But although she lands the laughs, it’s not long before that famously pinched, back-of-the throat, patronising tone is back and surprises are few.Jill Halfpenny,  Joe Absolom in Abigail's PartyNatalie Casey also attempts a different route by making hapless Ange a startlingly dim bulb. She too raises big laughs suggesting Ange’s total inability to read what’s going on but that's a short term gain. It robs her character of the social nervousness that explains her awkwardness and creates sympathy. Without it, her lack of elementary awareness is incompatible with her job as a nurse, a detail which turns out to be crucial.

Andy Nyman wins the prize for reinterpretation. His Laurence is less-long-suffering and much angrier. He positively shines with determination – you hear next to nothing of his estate-agent spiel but feel as if you’ve heard it all – and his terrific performance is filled with witty grace-notes like his quick, formal handshake after being forced to dance.

It’s hard not to feel that this is a pitiless set of character studies in search of a play

Susannah Harker’s reined-in, pained Sue spends the evening trying not to listen while, upsettingly, failing to do so. Her performance stands in contrast to the prevailing tone which almost feels as if the performances were conceived in isolation from one another. That's unlikely to have been the case but certainly the collective rhythm goes awry. Rage peaks too soon and the caustic comedy works better than the tragic finale which requires collaborative playing which is absent.

Even when you’re laughing at Beverly’s appalling insensitivity and the hideous embarrassment of a couple taking it out on each other in public, it’s hard not to feel that in this production Abigail’s Party is a pitiless set of character studies in search of a play. I’ll come off the fence now: you want a funny but tough, bleak yet compassionate evisceration of Seventies suburban marriage on a near identical set? Stick with Jeremy Herrin’s first-rate revival of Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends playing across town.

Although Jill Halfpenny lands the laughs, it’s not long before that famously pinched, back-of-the throat, patronising tone is back

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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