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Abigail's Party (tour - Cambridge, Arts Theatre)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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It's a long time since I've seen such a good staging of Mike Leigh's seminal play Abigail's Party – and that includes the original 1977 London production. Tour director Tom Attenborough paces Lindsay Posner's 2012 production to keep the whole thing bustling along to make what are after all ultimately horrendous events in a modern suburban living-room seem as mercilessly hilarious as the people involved.

Hannah Waterman's Beverly, slinking around in shiny emerald-green with matching eye-shadow and a waterfall of tousled blonde curls to compensate for the slitheryness of her dress, is magnificently disagreeable. She fires off her selfish demands at her long-suffering husband and her ill-assorted guests (who she plies with drink, canapés, unsolicited advice and cigarettes regardless of their inclinations or refusals) with the determination of a machine-gun operator mowing down a ditchful of captive rebels.

Then there's Emily Raymond's Susan, the quietly-spoken divorcée whose teenage daughter's offstage shindig is the occasion for this gathering. Expecting a genteel before-dinner drinks party she finds herself incorporated into a post-pizza alcoholic evening, with which neither her stomach nor her maternal worryings can cope. It's a subtle and well-rounded portrait which sustains credibility and never descends into middle-class caricature.

Also invited is newly-wed nurse Angela (Katie Lightfoot). Designer Mike Britton – whose brown-dominated set shows an eagle eye for social as well as period detail – swathes her in hippy-inspired Laura Ashley-type dress and cardigan, just right for a naïve young housewife whose obsession with the grislier details of her work is designed to put off any hearer, not just her laconic, monosyllabic ex-footballer husband Tony (Samuel James).

When Beverly, that WAG avant la lettre makes her pass at Tony, it's made blatantly obvious to her own husband Laurence (Martin Marquez) just how inadequate she feels him to be. Marquez hits off the work-dominated would-be culture-vulture finely (there's a gorgeous theatrical in-joke moment concerning Macbeth) leading up to the climax of the drama. By then, what happens seems perfectly logical and absolutely inevitable.


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