reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 1 September
This new co-production between the Queen’s Theatre (now with a major renovation project in hand), Derby Theatre, Wiltshire Creative and le Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg slides Mike Leigh’s iconic 1970s drama east of London.
Director Douglas Rintoul is well served by designer Lee Newby as we enter the new-build home of estate agent Laurence (Christopher Staines) and his former beautician wife Beverly (Melanie Gutteridge). Her main evening drinks party guest is newcomer nurse Angela (Amy Downham) the not-so-trophy wife of former footballer Tony (Liam Bergin).
Also invited are middle-age, middle-class divorcée Susan (Susie Emmett) whose teenage daughter is holding the eponymous party. It’s a recipe for disaster amid the cheesy-pineapple sticks, nuts, olives and far too many gins’n’tonics. Disasters duly occur.
The hallmark of a theatre classic play is that it speaks as strongly to audiences who may not have been born when it premiered as to those like myself who saw the original production at the Hampstead Theatre. It does require a cast which can live up to it.
Gutteridge’s Beverly radiates bleached and toned blonde selfishness, happy to play off Bergin’s laconic Tony against an increasingly frustrated Laurence. She dominates the action, as Leigh intends. Staines builds the husband who can never satisfy his wife’s material demands into a figure of near-tragic proportion.
Poor Susan is the fish-out-of-water in this particular bowl; Emmett makes her increasing physical and mental discomfort subtly apparent while Downham witters away, apparently willing to be a foil for Beverly’s cattily “helpful” comments on her appearance.
Rintoul keeps the action at a brisk pace, while allowing us to appreciate the basic absurdity of Leigh’s characters. None of them are merely two-dimensional stereotypes, for all that they are each rooted in a particular trench of class and finding shovelling a way out of it difficult.
Four and a half-star rating.
Abigail’s Party runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 22 September with matinées on 6, 8, 13, 15, 20 and 22 September. A companion piece, Abi by Atiha Sen Gupta, plays between 4 and 22 September at 9.30pm on 4, 5, 8, 14, 20 and 22 September, at 4.30pm on 6 and 15 September and 5.30pm on 19 September.