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Abigail’s Party (West End)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Lindsay Posner’s revival of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, which has moved uptown from the Menier Chocolate Factory like a 1970s kitsch epidemic, is a riot of beige and brown clothing, sickly orange wallpaper and shag pile carpet, with acting, music and cheesy nibbles to match.

The audience embraces the play as a cult event, which it undoubtedly is, though I’d much prefer a less hysterical, wound-up, screeching type of performance. The wigs, for instance, are deliberately terrible and hideous, and Natalie Casey’s Angela notably robotic, walking around like a constipated rag doll in her patchwork dress; could this woman plausibly be employed as a nurse, even at a hospital in Walthamstow?

But even the extremity of the acting, which is in danger of obscuring the humanity of the characters - the hole in the heart of Tony and Angela’s marriage, for instance, the barrenness of Beverly, the wilted sadness of Susannah Harker’s middle-class Susan (whose daughter Abigail is having the increasingly raucous party along the street) - cannot obscure the classic construction of the piece.

The action is continuous, in real time, with a steady accumulation of disastrous information, dangerous emotional flash points, cruelty, humiliation and catastrophe. I’m mystified, though, as to why there’s an interval, apart from the reasonable consideration of bar takings.

The cast of Abigail's Party. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.
For a kitsch comedy, it’s very bleak indeed, and the more we laugh, the worse it gets; to be fair, Posner and his company are alive to this even as they push the boat out on the Estuary accents, with Jill Halfpenny’s swish and flirtatious Beverly – much more a “desperate” suburban housewife than Alison Steadman’s famous gorgon in layered taffeta – smooching with Joe Absolom’s taciturn but thunderously pent-up Tony.

Andy Nyman, sporting a tie in three shades of beige that resembles a coffee and chocolate ice-cream disaster, really does play Laurence as a heart attack case, proudly fingering his gold-embossed bound volumes, which include Macbeth: “Part of our heritage… of course it’s not something you can actually read,” a line which elicits a round of applause, as if in agreement.

Mike Britton’s accurate and detailed design, with its “World of Leather” three-piece suite, Lowry painting, frosted kitchen windows and van Gogh chair, and Howard Harrison’s lighting, sustain the period atmosphere so insistently that you begin to wonder about that Norwegian production Leigh talked about in a radio interview the other day, playing the second half in a contrasting contemporary setting. Could such an approach possibly work?

- Michael Coveney

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