Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party was first produced by Hampstead Theatre in the late 1970's and its subsequent broadcast on the BBC still holds the record for TV audience for a play at around 16 million viewers. As such, for those of us who were around in those times the play's original themes are now heavily overlaid with a deep sense of nostalgia.
The story takes place over a single evening with Beverly (an annoying, shallow, woman played by Lizzy McInnerny) having a 'little party' for her neighbours. As the evening progresses, and the spirits flow, we learn that all is not what it seems. Beverley's husband Laurence, an overworked Estate Agent - very well portrayed by Huw Higginson - has aspirations and interest she cannot share.
The new neighbours Angela (Elizabeth Hopley) and Tony (Steffan Rhodri) seem unable to communicate at all, and Susan (a very credible Liz Crowther), who has lived in the area the longest, is a divorcee (a more significant fact at the time than it would appear now) who's daughter Abigail, is having the party a few doors down.
What starts as a friendly evening quickly deteriorates into snide comments and revelations of marital dissatisfaction, leading on to down-right arguments and flying insults. The ensemble acting is a delight to watch carrying us through the characters’ embarrassment effortlessly and most enjoyably.
The setting is pure late 1970's and is extremely well designed. There was a real buzz in the audience of 'we used to have one of those', 'do you remember fibre lamps?' and 'why did we think that looked so great?', a genuine sense of happy 'remember when' . As such Jonathan Fensom’s design provides an explicit part of the pleasure for the audience. In fact the whole staging, set, lights and sound, provide excellent support to the cast
I hadn't seen this play in a long time, and had forgotten just how good it is. I would have liked David Grindley's direction to have sought the quick laugh less, going more for straight playing that would have allowed the comedy to have shown through by itself, this would have given more emotional weight to the ending. Nevertheless this production gives the audience a thoroughly good evening of theatre; go and enjoy yourself.
- Robert Iles
NOTE: The following review dates from September 2003 and this production's earlier tour stop, Birmingham Rep.
Mike Leigh's play is now over a quarter of a century old but has lost none of its ability to both appeal and appal as its monstrous hostess gives a party for a handful of neighbours.
And thanks to Jonathan Fensom's fantastically kitsch set, the play remains a period piece as the audience is transported back to 1977, complete with fibre optic lights, swirly carpet, patterned curtains, drop-leaf drinks cupboard in a teak and chrome sideboard, and the obligatory plate of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks.
But no matter how cringe-making the décor, nothing beats Lizzy McInnerny as party hostess Beverly. As the noise from the party of teenager Abigail (who we never meet) drones on in the background, Beverly patronises, condescends, irritates and annoys with two-hours of smug, overbearing and nasal small talk, riding roughshod over all her guests' feelings and opinions in her peculiar attempt to make sure everyone sees her as the perfect suburban hostess - despite proving to be the opposite.
Under the direction of David Grindley, the horror of Beverly's social ineptness - from throwing herself at guest Tony to sexual put-downs about her husband Laurence; from forcing another gin and tonic on subdued neighbour Susan, to telling the whole party when Susan promptly vomits it all up again - is always kept at levels of mortification. Great performances and wonderful characterisation all round.
Huw Higginson gains only a small amount of sympathy as Beverly's hard-working yet materialistic husband Laurence, despite the tragedy that ensues for him later in act two.
Likewise, there is little to like about Elizabeth Hopley's irritatingly chatty Angela or her monosyllabic husband Tony, played by Simon Wilson. All our compassion goes to Liz Crowther's Susan, forced into hearing her marriage, divorce and warnings about daughter Abigail's party dissected by a group she hardly knows, despite her obvious discomfort.
It's a pacy evening, albeit an uneasy one, and the audience ends up feeling not unlike Susan, having to sit quietly and witness Beverly's monstrous behaviour, all the time appalled yet powerless to stop it spiralling towards a destructive end.
- Elizabeth Ferrie (reviewed at Birmingham Rep)