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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
ABIGAIL’S PARTY
at Wyndham’s

TRAPPINGS OF SUCCESS
By SAM MARLOWE


Was ever a party more grisly than the one depicted in Mike Leigh’s notorious 1977 work? It’s not, of course, Abigail’s bash to which we’re invited – that takes place offstage, with plenty of noisy music by the likes of the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop, in this revival by Lindsay Posner, to remind us that there’s an angry youth revolution going on in the streets beyond the firmly closed front doors of suburbia. No, we’re stuck in Beverly and Lawrence’s lounge, with its carefully chosen decor designed by Mike Britton in shades of turd and tangerine, its glittering fibre-optic lamp, its record collection of James Galway, Donna Summer and Demis Roussos, and, most fatally of all, its well-stocked bar. Come in, sink into the leather sofa, indulge in a cheese-and-pineapple nibble and raise a very big G&T – because the scene is set for an evening every bit as ghastly, telling, sad and squirmingly funny as it was over three decades ago.
 
Any production of the play has to contend with the fact that the TV recording of Leigh’s original Hampstead Theatre staging has become indelibly imprinted on the British public’s consciousness. At the Wyndham’s, where Posner’s revival has transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory, this seems to have had an unfortunate, and largely undeserved, side effect. The atmosphere has taken on a hen-nightish, squawky hysteria, with rowdy, well-oiled gaggles dominating the audience, reciting familiar lines in imitation of Alison Steadman’s memorable performance, often before the actors onstage have had a chance to utter them. This is a great shame, because Posner and his cast have taken some care to bring new colours and inflexions to the script. And if the results can hardly hope to make the play seem new-minted, they do bring stinging heightened levels of cruelty, bitter despair and bilious glee to Leigh’s hellish soiree.
 
Jill Halfpenny, sleek in a plunging lime-green gown, is hostess Beverly, a dangerously bored lower-middle-class housewife who, having won what she imagines is a lifelong meal-ticket in Andy Nyman’s overworked estate agent Laurence, is sharpening her teeth and searching for further amusement. A man-eater in manmade fibres, she dispenses booze and snacks with a zealous, ostentatious hospitality that verges on the ferocious, her eyes narrowing with avaricious desire when they sight Tony (Joe Absolom), husband to dowdy neighbour Angela (Natalie Casey). Of all the performances, Casey’s is the greatest departure from the 1977 version. Her Angela, unlike Janine Duvitski’s gawky, smiling creation, is beset by a dead-eyed misery that is gradually revealed to be the result of a controlling and abusive marriage. She permits the salivating Beverly, hips swiveling, snake-like, to dance with Tony, only to realise, too late, that she has just fed her husband to a boa constrictor; when she sees Beverly’s manicured nails raking down his buttocks, she hangs her head in abject hurt and humiliation.
 
These two dissatisfied couples are complimented by Sue (Susannah Harker), a reticent and rather posher divorcee whose teenage daughter is the play’s titular party-thrower. Dragged into matrimonial squabbles and ugly one-upmanship, she’s held hostage, her escape route barred by the sounds of revelry from her own home. But if Sue’s loneliness is most immediately obvious, the other characters, too, are trapped and isolated, imprisoned by convention and misplaced aspirations that are more concerned with the trappings of success and social status than with personal happiness or fulfillment. This is defiantly a period piece; but as long as we all remain in thrall to pretension and consumerism, it will continue to stand the test of time.

 


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