Just when you thought it was safe to crack open a bottle of Pomagne, the party from Hell has just fizzed its way back onto the stage – and it’s darker and fresher than ever.
Can it really be 10 years ago that the Theatre Royal hosted the last revival of Mike Leigh’s ground-breaking Abigail’s Party on tour? Well, it’s back on the road after an acclaimed West End run directed by Lindsay Posner – and in the extremely capable hands of Tom Attenborough while touring.
More than 35 years after its first appearance, it doesn’t need anyone to remark on how extraordinarily good the play is. Despite the passing of time, the social discomfort, the monstrous characters, and underlying resentments have lasted well, and seem uncomfortably familiar even today. Perhaps the middle class wannabe characteristics and materialistic conceits we laughed at in 1977 have become a way of life when the only way is Essex.
Mike Britton’s wonderful set is a star in its own right, a triumph of kitschy suburban hopes, complete with leather three-piece suite, sliding doors, wooden antelopes and fibre optic lamp.
In the quality cast, we have a quintet who work so well together that the piece becomes all the more horribly real, as marriages disintegrate, unpleasant obsessions come to the fore, and insecurities are pushed to the surface. Highly polished performances all round display the tension and the underlying sadness without losing a jot of the black humour.
Hannah Waterman’s bullying hostess Beverly is a monster, predatory, intimidating, impossible to say no to. Her gin and tonic social gathering is a nightmare in which all the characters can only aspire to the freedom of the young people attending the unseen Abigail’s party next door, yet a sensual and scary Waterman also succeeds in allowing a glimpse of the pain and heartache simmering beneath.
Katie Lightfoot is excellent as the naïve but sweet Ange, one of the new arrivals in the neighbourhood, who serves as a constant and hateful reminder of lost opportunity to her surly ex-footballer husband Tony (played with nicely-judged menace bordering on out and out thuggery by Samuel James).
Martin Marquez is super too as Bev’s stressed workaholic and patronising husband Laurence, trying too hard in just about every sphere of life. And Emily Raymond completes the fine company as the prudish but proper Susan (whose unseen teenage daughter is throwing the shindig over the road that gives the play its title), watching the goings-on around her disapprovingly but unable to escape.
We may still squirm amid the cheesy pineapple sticks and liberal gin and tonics – but this production proves this classic play has lost none of its sharp wit, observation and pure class.