Abigail’s Party, Bath Theatre Royal

HOW would it be, 40 years on? I was frankly curious to see if this play, that seemed so effortlessly to have skewered the social pretensions and fragile egos of the far from swinging 70s, had lasted the course?

I wondered if it would seem dated, a period piece with pineapple and cheese on sticks, fiber-optic lights and Demis Roussos on the record player.

For many in the audiences packing into Bath Theatre Royal from 1st to 11th March the big draw is Sherlock’s Amanda Abbington tackling one of theatre’s all-time female monsters.

Beverley is not a serial killer nor a blood-sucking vampire nymphomaniac. She is actually one of the saddest characters you will ever see on stage. But she is a monster and ultimately we are repelled, even by her vulnerability.

She is self-obsessed, with no self knowledge; brittle but hard as nails; masks cruelty with a veneer of concern and humiliates her husband Laurence (Ben Caplan) at every turn.

The only honest thing that Beverley says is that if she had lived with Laurence for a year before they married, she would not have married him.

She is vacuous but convinced she has taste, a superficial sexual predator whose lack of confidence is painful to behold, the hostess with the mostest who vamps her friend’s former Crystal Palace footballer husband (Ciaran Owens) and forces so much alcohol down her guest Susan (Rose Keegan) that the poor woman is sick.

Ultimately Beverley is pathetic. There is no depth to this fragile flower who flirts and floats around a house which has all the latest gadgets and gizmos but no heart. There is no love in Beverley’s life and she has only banalities and platitudes to fall back on when the evening slides from drunken chaos to catastrophe.

Like most Mike Leigh plays Abigail’s Party is realism writ large – the dialogue is so natural it hurts. The spaces and gaps where people falter and hesitate and then repeat themselves are often excruciating. The endless repetition of the “little top-up” and the patronising beauty tips are all part of Beverley’s weapons in her war of social status. This is TOWIE long before The Only Way Is Essex was ever thought of.

Susan, the divorced mother whose daughter Abigail is having the party down the road, is too polite to respond as she surely wants to, as Beverley and Angela (Charlotte Mills) torment her with their  “little jokes” fuelled by ever more gin.

This new production, directed by Sarah Esdaile, is pitch perfect on pacing, with wonderful period designs by Janet Bird. It is often achingly funny, although we wince as we laugh, and horribly honest.

The acting is uniformly excellent, but inevitably and rightly the evening is Amanda Abbington’s. From the opening scene, as she disco-dances alone in a long blonde wig and white evening dress, Abbington pushes aside any thoughts of the brilliant but doomed spy and assassin Mary Watson in Sherlock, and shows us a deeply unhappy inarticulate woman in a loveless marriage. It is a less brutal portrait than Alison Steadman’s original and never-to-be-forgotten Beverley, but all the sadder for her depiction of a woman who is incapable of touching or being touched, who talks incessantly  but says nothing.


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