(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford on 7 October)
Mike Leigh’s searing dissection of 1977 England is now both a period piece and a play for all times, because its characters are truly people. Probably we all know go-getters, second careerists and socially ambitious neighbours. With luck, these don’t include a Beverly, in whose sitting-room the action of Abigail’s Party takes place.
Her guests for the evening include an established resident, Susan (Gailie Pollock) – whose teenage daughter is throwing the party of the title – and new neighbours nurse Angela (Natalie Caswell) and husband Tony (Matthew Bancroft). Former beautician Beverly is determined to be the queen bee in this particular hive; of course, queen bees have a lethal way with their mates.
Director Simon Anderson in this new Contexture production takes it all at a brisk pace with Tom Cliff’s extended set flanked on stage left by the pseudo-Georgian front door marked with its ominous number 13. Anderson is not afraid to put the sofa on which Angela, all girlish naïvité with a school-of-Laura-Ashley frock to match, and sensibly-clad Susan perch so uncomfortably facing the audience; we become flies on the fourth wall waiting for the inevitable to occur.
Charlotte Newton-John, sashaying around either the coffee-table or her guests in an ankle-length flame-coloured gown, her hair teased into a topknot of suspiciously bright curls, is an eye- and ear-riveting Beverly. Her “Don’t get me wrong” catch-phrase carries destruction every time she trills it. This is a performance to savour. It puts both Pollock and Caswell somewhat in the shade, however.
As monolithic and monosyllabic Tony, embarrassed by his wife’s gushing over Beverly’s taste in furnishings, Bancroft creates a realistic portrait of a man who will go his own way, regardless. Harassed estate-agent Laurence, juggling with clients’ demands and his wife’s constant commands so thinly veiled by a last-minute “please” gradually earns our sympathy as well as understanding. Stephen Cavanagh has the measure of the man as he finds something of a kindred spirit in Susan. By then, it’s all too late.
Abigail’s Party runs at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford until 13 October.