MIKE Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party has become a byword for monstrous behaviour and tacky 70s culinary and decorative trends.
Thanks to Alison Steadman, who made her name in the role of Beverly the hostess from suburban hell, Leigh’s brilliantly cruel look at aspirational housing estate life has become known as a star vehicle.
So Douglas Rintoul’s marvellously detailed production, made for a quartet of pan European theatres, is a revelation. I must have seen Abigail’s Party a dozen times on various professional and amateur stages over the years, and until this production I have increasingly dreaded it, with all its excruciating ly funny moments.
What this production does is to balance out the roles, and that is not to minimise the terrific performance by Melanie Gutteridge, who conveys both Beverly’s brashness and the underlying loneliness of this childless woman.
In case you don’t know the story, Abigail (who is never seen) is the 15-year-old daughter of divorced Susan, and she’s having a party next door. So Beverly invites Susan round for drinks with her and her estate agent husband Laurence, and asks new neigbours former footballer Tony and his nurse wife Angela as well.
Weedy Laurence has married the brashly sexy Beverly and is working his life away to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed. Angela wants to be where Beverly and Laurence are in the new society. Tony doesn’t give a ….
And Susan is so far outside their aspirational games that all she can do is exercise her innate good manners and rise above it, while suffering increasing terrors about the state of her house, under siege from growing numbers of young people invited in by her tearaway daughter.
Fuelled by endless top-ups of G and T, Bacardi and Coke and Pale Ale, the tension at Beverly’s party
is palpably rising.
I can’t praise the performances too highly. With the precise and sensitive Rintoul direction, each one of the five creates a fully rounded, recognisable character, wrenching the Salisbury audience back through the decades to watch as five people expose both their weaknesses and their strengths. It is so easy to play the denouement for laughs, but here the mood and temperature turn on a pin-head.
Amy Downham’s Angela is full of vocal mannerisms and jerky movements. Liam Bergin, best known for his EastEnders role, makes the irritable Tony a man truly out of his comfort zone.
Susie Emmett captures the polite desperation of Susan with clipped responses and perfect poise, and Christopher Staines, a regular on the Bristol stage, is the striving, helpless Laurence, chained to a woman he thought he liked.
Abigail’s Party is at Salisbury Playhouse until 17th November.