Note: The following review dates from July 2002 and this production's original London run at Hampstead Theatre. For current cast details, see the show's
The play is called Abigail's Party, but it's actually Bev's party that we bear morbidly funny witness to in Mike Leigh's classic comedy of suburban distress.
Beverly, the socially aspiring wife of a harassed estate agent, Laurence, whom she constantly puts down, has invited some of the neighbours around for drinks, not to mention cheese-and-pineapple chunks on cocktail sticks, which isn't the only thing that locks the play to 1977 when it was written. Another is the fact that new neighbours Angela and her taciturn husband Tony boast of having managed to bargain the price of their house down from £22,000 to £21,000.
Susan, a lonely divorcee whose 15-year-old daughter, Abigail, is holding the rowdy party of the title at their house across the street, completes the gathering.
This revival of the play - best known for its subsequent television incarnation - returns it to Hampstead Theatre where it was devised 25 years ago, and in turn marks the final production there before the theatre moves to new purpose-built premises nearby early next year.
And while David Grindley's production springs no surprises, it simultaneously provides a celebratory way to go as well as an illuminating early example of the kind of fractious relationships, based on mutual contempt, that Leigh would go on to investigate even more deeply in his later films like Life Is Sweet, Naked and Secrets and Lies.
Since the original cast - which included Alison Steadman in the comic performance of a lifetime as Bev - cannot be beaten, this company do well to copy them. Even if certain mannerisms specific to the original actors who played the roles are now more generically observed, the current lot do provide a wounding portrait of the despair beneath the bonhomie.
Elizabeth Berrington has the hardest task of following in Steadman's shoes, but acquits herself beautifully with a performance of trying to make an impression on her guests (and especially Steffan Rhodri's Tony, whom she fancies) while simultaneously offering nothing but withering disdain to her indigestion tablet-popping husband (the excellent, rotund Jeremy Swift).
As Tony's twittering wife, Rosie Cavaliero is heartbreakingly good as a woman adept at keeping up the appearance of happiness even though she obviously possesses none. By contrast, Wendy Nottingham's Susan can't disguise the worry for what Abigail and her friends are getting up to back at home.
Abigail's Party, which grows progressively darker amidst the humour, was blazingly original in its day; and while Alan Ayckbourn has, of course, continued to mine a similar territory, Leigh's play is remarkable for the fact that there's actually very little plot, and no hiding behind the various theatrical tricks that Ayckbourn likes to employ. Instead, this is purely character-driven, and these characters are driven to despair.
- Mark Shenton