Review: Abigail's Party (Oxford Playhouse)

Amanda Abbington stars in the 40th anniversary production of Mike Leigh’s play

Mike Leigh’s study of suburban '70s mores is revived in its full screaming awfulness for the stage, in Sarah Esdaile’s 40th anniversary production touring. Amanda Abbington, slinking conspicuously around in an off-the-shoulder white maxi and a Farrah Fawcett-esque blonde blow-dry, plays Beverly, an Essex housewife hosting the sort of soiree you’d feign an attack of syphilis to avoid.

She hen-pecks her priggish husband Laurence, an estate agent in a brown suit who only wants to bore on about his middle-brow taste in art. She patronises her two neighbours – the giggling Ange and the reserved, pained Susan – and shamelessly puts the move on Ange’s hirsute young husband, Tony. The five are brought together because Susan’s teenage daughter, Abigail, is throwing the eponymous party next door.

For the first half, Leigh’s pitch-perfectly caught dialogue confines itself mostly to awkward half-chat about home improvements and the trouble with teenagers. Class signifiers spear the conversation like the cheese and pineapple sticks that get passed around, while the bickering, bile and bitterness of their various disappointing relationships is swallowed as desperately as their endless rounds of G&Ts.

Abbington has a monstrous magnetism as Beverly even when her chat is wildly condescending. The women undermine their men (and each other), while the blokes occasionally snap back, in micro-demonstrations of the violent control apparently considered all part of married life.

Much of the script is slicingly funny, but much of this production isn’t funny enough – sure, the first half is meant to be stilted and banal, but it doesn’t always feel as if the cast have quite found their feet with its understated, uber-naturalistic rhythm. Rose Keegan as the long-suffering Susan, whose swoopy, vacant delivery is wonderfully odd, initially just seems fake, and it’s Ciaran Owens’ perfectly-timed monosyllabic answers as Tony that get the largest laughs. For a while, it’s almost as boring as being stuck at such a party, although things warm up in the more lively (and vicious) second half.

Abbington is gleefully ghastly – especially when her eyes travel up and down Tony, her mouth half open as if to catch her prey. But she doesn’t find much light and shade in Beverly; there’s little sense of the damage behind the manipulative facade. And Ben Caplan as Laurence, although impressively appearing to retract his whole head into his shoulders with stress, also doesn’t develop much. There’s a snooping, snobbish pleasure to be had in watching the whole thing derail, but not much human warmth in a production which itself seems overly snide towards its characters.

The slanted wooden walls of the front room open up, box like, beckoning us right into this domestic disaster. Inside, Janet Bird’s retro set is tricked out with every cheesy '70s staple going: shag pile carpet, cheese plants, orange-and-brown patterned soft furnishings. But while we may be invited in to wince at the skewering of these comically awful characters, it’s not exactly an unmissable party.

Abigail's Party runs at Oxford Playhouse until 8 April before touring the UK.