Review: Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory

“We’ve got whiskey, gin, vodka, whatever you like”

Whisper it quietly, but I’ve never actually seen Abigail’s Party. I came to Mike Leigh rather late and carrying so much cultural baggage and expectation with it, it’s never been a film I’ve felt a particular inclination to take in. So when the Menier Chocolate Factory announced it was producing a revival of the play, it didn’t really register on my radar of things that I needed to see. But excellent word-of-mouth and general expressions of shock that I’d never seen it before encouraged me to book a ticket when a chance visit to the theatre’s website offered up a return for sale.

Jill Halfpenny takes on Beverly, the role iconically made famous by Alison Steadman (I know that much at least) and though it is her outrageous ‘fantasticness’ that forms a large part of the play and the excruciating comedy it contains, it remains thoroughly a Mike Leigh piece at heart. So painful marital discord abounds and if the prevailing tone is comedic, it is piercingly dark and cutting. For someone watching it for the first time, I didn’t find it half as funny as nearly everyone around me.

Mike Britton’s set is a finely detailed 70s homage, full of period-perfect minutiae that had a large portion of the audience nodding and pointing in recognition (not me though, I was only in the 1970s for 6 months!) as Beverly invites new neighbours Angela and Tony round to meet her husband Lawrence and other neighbour Sue, whose daughter Abigail is the one having a party from which she is trying to escape. Beverly is determined to create a new social scene from her soirée and get maximum entertainment for herself as she slips on a green cocktail dress to dance to some Demis Roussos and get the party started.

But the party spirit is not much in evidence and as the do across the road threatens to spill over into anarchy, the atmosphere here implodes into the most awkward of evenings. Copious amounts of gin are sunk and soon the stilted small-talk gives way to the rancorous marital disharmony bubbling beneath the surface. So Beverly flirts and dances desperately as her plans fall into disarray, Halfpenny able to use her Strictly skills well here, as she sets out to seduce Tony, Joe Absolom’s laconic ex-footballer who exudes unreconstructed masculine energy. As their partners, Natalie Casey’s blank-eyed, gin-medicated Angela and Andy Nyman’s workaholic Laurence match them well and engage in the kind of behaviour that speak of lived-in marriages.

Lindsay Posner rounds off his cast with an excellent Susannah Harker as Sue, the wet blanket to end all wet blankets and the dynamic between them all works extremely well as they drink and smoke and stagger through to the end of the evening. This production of Abigail’s Party is undoubtedly strong and very well acted, but a little part of me wonders quite why it has achieved the legendary status it has. Chatting to a random at the interval revealed how it became a hugely watched TV phenomenon and so I guess I need to get round to watching the DVD so I can see how it gathered such cult status.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Booking until 21st April – the run is sold out, but do keep checking the website as returns keep appearing. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets a transfer too.

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