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Review Round-up: Critics enjoy Abigail's return

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Lindsay Posner's revival of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory last week (8 March 2012, previews from 2 March).

The play, now considered a modern classic, sees Beverly (Jill Halfpenny) and her husband Laurence (Andy Nyman) host a drinks party for their neighbours in 1970s suburbia. As prejudices are unmasked and tempers flare, the evening can only end in disaster.

It plays a limited eight week season at the Menier until 21 April 2012, before heading to the Theatre Royal Bath between 23-28 April, with a cast that includes Joe Absolom, Natalie Casey and Susannah Harker.

Matt Trueman

"Like Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends, Mike Leigh's best-loved play shows the undercurrents of misogyny and material aspiration ... Leigh’s play ... is by far the superior, achieving all that Absent Friends manages (and more) with none of the artifice ... One now realises that Sue ... is the lynchpin of the play’s continued success. Her plummy presence (Susannah Harker) ... ensures the brash tastes of her horrific hostess Beverley Jill Halfpenny) remain rooted in class, not just the mockable gaucheness of the period ... Lindsay Posner ’s production thrives in the Menier’s intimate surrounds ... 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 ... Andy Nyman is fantastic as her husband ... Posner gives us all we want ... 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."

Paul Taylor

"Lindsay Posner's vibrant, splendidly cast revival of  Abigail's Party ...Mike Leigh's stage play... a classic of excruciatingly comic social embarrassment ... Posner's production will delight the fans ... invigoratingly fresh new sidelights on characterisation ... Halfpenny pins down with hilarious precision the infallibly undermining supportiveness of Beverly ... But whereas (Alison) Steadman's Beverly seemed like this by second nature, you are more aware here of how the control freakery is compensation for a marriage that failed ... By intriguing coincidence, there's another play on at the moment, set in the 1970s and dealing with unlovely male attitudes to women and gifted with a set that is a shrine to the hideous idea of domestic taste in the period. But Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends strikes me as strenuously (and slightly self-regardingly) feminist by comparison with Leigh's play which takes huge, calculated risks in being misconstrued as heartless and patronising about the class-conflicted characters whose idiosyncrasies are here revelled in unwitheringly by Susannah Harker, Natalie Casey and Joe Absolom."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"A tragicomic portrait of the hostile hostess, outwardly all gins, small-talk and cheesy nibbles; inwardly tortured, sadistic ... Jill Halfpenny’s Beverly certainly looks alluring, all done up in a long, green, slinky dress, with eyelashes like ravens’ claws ... Miss Halfpenny has the unenviable task of escaping the memory most of us have of Alison Steadman in this role. She succeeds ... That cracking actress Natalie Casey de-glams herself to play plain plodder Angela. Susannah Harker, once so willowy, is a revelation as posh, matronly hipped Susan, mother of Abigail. Susan is a loser. Miss Harker catches beautifully her air of fatigued failure ... Joe Absolom ... completes the strong cast ... The one trouble with Abigail’s Party is that so many people know it so well that it has lost the power to surprise. But this is a jolly good production of a great play."

The cast of Abigail's Party at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"A night of continuous guilty pleasure ... It is also a piece that divides critical opinion. While many find it a hoot, others have complained that it cruelly holds its lower-middle-class characters up to derision ... Indeed I took that view myself when the play was last revived in the West End 10 years ago. This time, however, I was completely won over ... Lindsay Posner’s superb production captures the palpable pain of the characters as well as their absurdity ... Mike Britton’s brilliantly evocative Seventies stage design ... Beverly, brilliantly played by Jill Halfpenny in a performance that is simultaneously sexy and repellent ... But the actress leaves no doubt that deep down Bev is miserable and unfulfilled ... Natalie Casey, with her pendulous lower lip, proves deeply poignant as the gauche and simple-minded nurse Angela ... Terrific work, too, from Andy Nyman ... and from Susannah Harker as the posh, unhappy neighbour ... The play’s dark ending still achieves a shattering dramatic impact, even if you know it is coming, and this terrific production must surely be bound for the West End."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"In Lindsay Posner’s exemplary revival the role belongs to Jill Halfpenny ... her performance is finely tuned, even if it can’t eclipse Steadman’s masterclass in nasal ghastliness ... Halfpenny’s Beverly is ... a magnificently monstrous creation, dominating those around her with her endless display of synthetic gestures, attitudes and phrases ... Andy Nyman is splendidly fidgety, moving from a hollow geniality into irritable self-importance. Susannah Harker is spot-on as the simpering, repressed Susan. Joe Absolom’s laconic Tony resembles a spring waiting to uncoil, and Natalie Casey’s Angela is a perfect study in chatty monotony. The interplay between the performers is impeccably managed. Posner has a skillful way with farce, yet also extracts pathos from Leigh’s writing ... Leigh’s play will always strike some as a heartless and patronising caricature of pretentious suburbanism. But here it seems triumphantly witty - not so much a cheesy nibble as a fizzing mix of acute humour and slowly revealed tragedy. Rather than being a guilty pleasure steeped in Schadenfreude, it feels universal in its appeal."

Simon Edge
Daily Express

"Jill Halfpenny, stepping into Beverly's heels in this hugely enjoyable revival...also gives her a sultry sexiness and some seriously seductive dance-floor moves that I don't recall from the original ... Director Lindsay Posner has assembled a flawless cast for Beverly to spar with. Joe Absolom is a glowering, dangerous Tony, while Natalie Casey plays his dim wife Angie with a compelling deadpan drone. A tense Susannah Harker bears the lonely burden of Sue's cut-above politeness, cringing at the ghastliness but too polite to resist. And Andy Nyman brings a skilful blend of geniality, charm and ugly suppressed rage ... Designer Mike Britton has had enormous fun with the set ... Beverly, with her boorish insistence on taking control and forcing everyone else to want what she wants, is as vivid a gorgon as ever."

- Amy Sheppard


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