Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party is an iconic play which has a home in the hearts of many thanks to it's 1977 Hampstead Theatre production and subsequent BBC airing. If you knew it then, you'll still love it now, but what for a young whippersnapper like me, who wasn't even alive when the play landed on the scene? Is it still relevant and is it still funny when there is no recognition of the production everyone knows, nor even of the time in which it is set? Simple answer. Yes. Huge yes. Mega yes.
Lindsay Posner's superb production at the Menier Chocolate Factory is as close to perfection as one could hope, hitting every beat providing waves of laughter, grimaces and delight. The design instantly transports one to the 70s, with its burnt oranges and rotary dial telephones, never missing a detail, from the plug sockets to the fibre optic lamp, at no point do you ever feel you are anywhere but a 1970's middle-class living room.
The writing is barely worth mentioning, for its brilliance speaks for itself. A drinks party at Beverly's (Jill Halfpenny) house allows her and her husband Laurence (Andy Nyman) to get to know new neighbours Angela (Natalie Casey) and Tony (Joe Absolom) with a visit from Susan (Susannah Harker) whose daughter Abigail is throwing a party a few doors down. Marital problems, hatred and desire all make an appearance, along with cheese & pineapple cocktail sticks, a few olives and copious drinks.
The cast simply nail it, providing grotesque and relatable characters seething and bickering full of charm, rage, anger and sadness at the lives they live. Jill Halfpenny is a revelation as radiant, beautiful yet disgusting Beverly, bringing out a vulnerable side to a battle-axe of a woman, Absolom who she has her eyes on plays the quiet bully with an underlying menace, while Casey brings every laugh out of simple Angela and Harker makes Susan wonderfully middle-class and twee. So much is said through looks and body language that the characters cease to become characters right in front of yours eyes capturing their the palpable pain and absurdity. Andy Nyman's Laurence is a phenomenal, seething with bad luck, having realised his life and wife isn't what he had once hoped for. From all the laughter he creates, the arrival of olives at a party will never be the same again, there is a truth to the sadness of Laurence as he talks about his love of art and desire to visit Paris. The juxtaposition of his wife's sexualised dancing with Tony and his own hapless dance with Angela is a horrifying thing of rare theatrical beauty, all at one hilarious yet desperately sad
This is a production that deserves a longer life than its already sold-out run at the Chocolate Factory. As true now as it was then, an evening of escapism to the past which is every bit as dramatic, funny and relevant now as ever. This is a party you'll want to attend despite not getting a party bag with a slice of cake wrapped in a napkin in it on your way out.
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