It wasn’t all cheesy-pineapples and fibre-lights in the 1970s. Like Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends, Mike Leigh’s best-loved play shows the undercurrents of misogyny and material aspiration swirling beneath the era’s gauche surface.
Leigh’s play, still a cultural marker thanks to the BBC film version, is by far the superior, achieving all that Absent Friends manages (and more) with none of the artifice. Where Ayckbourn needs the kick-start of a drowned fiancée, Leigh requires only the sort of teenage house party that pierces some suburb’s peace every weekend. The fallout is entirely driven by his unrivalled grasp of character.
One now realises that Sue, the middle-class mother taking refuge from that party with her nouveau riche neighbours, is the lynchpin of the play’s continued success.
Her plummy presence – Susannah Harker’s thank-yous are like the polite ding-dong of suburban doorbells – ensures the brash tastes of her horrific hostess Beverley (Jill Halfpenny) remain rooted in class, not just the mockable gaucheness of the period. She looks down on Bev and her husband Laurence, just as they look down on new neighbours Tony and Susan, with their smaller house and two jobs. Abigail’s Party shows the working-class suburban invasion, recalled by David Eldridge’s In Basildon, in mid-flow, so that the self-made find themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with old-pros and CEOs. Under the fixed smiles and forced niceties are values as clashing as the prawn and baby-shit wallpaper, and Bev’s soiree soon becomes a hostage situation.
Lindsay Posner’s production thrives in the Menier’s intimate surrounds. We’re so close that the sickly vanilla of Beverley’s Estee Lauder perfume rolls across the auditorium like poison gas. It allows everything to exist in the details, whether of Mike Britton’s intricately ghastly set or the fine-tuned performances of a cast treating plum roles with both relish and respect.
Halfpenny borrows the needling nasals and lashing lisps of Alison Steadman’s original, but her Beverley is a more determinedly glamorous creature. In a glaring lime maxi-dress, dolled-up to the nines, she looks like the Angel that Charlie forgot to call.
Andy Nyman is fantastic as her husband, deep-breathing his way through the emasculating humiliation of his wife’s overt flirtation with Tony (Joe Absolom), while Harker looks like she’s distantly imagining the stains waiting for her at home. Natalie Casey strays furthest from the original, but her lobotomised goat-herd twist on Susan is perfectly in keeping with the role, while wringing more laughter from it.
Posner gives us all we want, from Demis Roussos to chilled Beaujolais, but still finds the surprise punch to silence our laughter. He controls fraying tempers and momentary outbursts with a conductor’s sensitivity and confirms – if further proof were needed – Abigail’s Party as a truly modern classic.