The newest revival of one of Mike Leigh’s most famous and successful plays, Abigail’s Party, is a brilliant piece of drama and one of the best that recent theatre has to offer. After a completely sold out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory it comes to the Theatre Royal Bath before going to the West End. Lindsay Posner’s brilliantly directed adaptation is hilariously charismatic as it is poignant.
Abigail’s Party is about a social get together of neighbours and friends, including two married couples and a divorcee. It is an absurd and socially awkward party in which Beverly, the hostess of the party, outrageously flirts with Tony, her neighbour. Also, Ange, his socially awkward wife is present as is Beverley’s husband, Laurence. Lastly to make the occasion complete there is Sue, the nervous divorcee, constantly worried about the party her daughter, Abigail, is throwing across the road. Beverley flirts and entertains, filling her guests with nibbles, alcohol and cigarettes. As the evening progresses the party descends into depravity and drunkenness.
The play is a great mixture of comedy, tragedy and drama all set against a backdrop of Essex in the 70s. During the party we see into the relationships between husband and wife and between neighbours and friends. As the characters become increasingly more intoxicated the play heightens, the humour steps up as does the ludicrousness of the situation. The play ends with the most hilarious and ridiculous tableau you will ever see in a piece of theatre that Leigh somehow gets away with.
The play is a combination of marital misery, British life, society and the class system. We see marriages crumble before our very eyes as the night progresses and the tension that is the divide of social identification between friend and partner. Beverley and Laurence argue from the offset. It starts with a petty quarrel over the nibbles at the party and their disagreement over olives. With the addition of alcohol and guests, cigarettes and even more alcohol this turns into a more bleak and severe argument over their differences in taste and more serious and intimate marital issues between them.
All the characters are played brilliantly by a superb cast that don’t over exaggerate their characters, bringing humour but truth to them also. Andy Nyman is the snappy estate agent, Susannah Harker is the reserved and gloomy divorcee and Joe Absalom brings an attentive, passive but at times quite aggressive Tony. But credit has to be given to Natalie Casey as the socially incompetent and clumsy wife of Tony, Ange. She brings a sweetness to the role as well as awkwardness. Her comic timing is perfect and her characterisation flawless. Lastly, Jill Halfpenny is the controlling hostess Beverly. She is the rock of the production and is flawless in this role which she brilliantly portrays as being both sexy and quite ugly at the same time.
Leigh offers moments of great melancholy juxtaposed with moments of absolute hilarity and absurdity in Abigail’s Party. Brilliantly directed by Posner the play flows along smoothly from one moment to the next, from seriousness to humour naturally.