Mike Leigh’s play about the residents of a suburban London enclave is now 40 years old. Each revival brings a new and appreciative audience as well as returning admirers, ths proving that this particular social satire is one for all decades and all generations.
We may not want to acknowledge it aloud, but most of us can number at least a couple of Leigh’s characters in our aquaintance. Which is not bad going when you realise that there are only five people on stage, plus of course the offstage teenaged Abigail, who is throwing her increasingly boisterous parent-free party a few doors away.
Queen bee and lynch-pin of the whole affair is Beverly, a wife so mesmerised by her own two-dimensional façade that other people only exist to reflect her appearance, her tastes in music, home décor and social entertaining. Amanda Abbington has the measure of the part; from the moment we glimpse her arranging the room for her drinks party through the windows of Janet Bird’s dolls’ house set, Abbington presents the whole woman.
Dressed in a totally unsuitable white pleated dress, constantly slithering off one shoulder, Beverly makes a god job of upstaging first new neighbour Angela (Charlotte Mills), a nurse whose slightly too-girlish dress only accentuates her comfortable plumpness. Ciarán Owens is Frank, the disenchanted former footballer now computer operator who is natural prey for Beverly.
Both Rose Keegan as middle-class divorcée Susan, doing her best to bring up Abigail and Jeremy with some support from her architect ex-husband, suggests the woman who would love to put Beverly back in her proper place but is too polite to force the issue. when she does do so it is completely ineffectual.
You can see why Ben Caplan’s work-obsessed estate agent Laurence might find in Susan a more congenial spirit than in wife Beverly, though even he tries too hard and too obviously to clamber onto her guarded wavelength. Caplan times Laurence’s develpment as the evning wears on very subtly, from “heard it all before” mild irritation to the downright irascibility as the play reaches its climax.
Sarah Esdaile is the director for this Theatre Royal Bath Productions tour. Bird’s co-designers are Mic Pool (sound, which is very cleverly graduated as the evening wears on) and Paul Pyant (lighting). Blending deliberate articiality with the right degree of realism is a harder visual and audible task than an audience might imagine. I suspect that Abigail will be still throwing her party forty years from now. This production certainly doesn’t impede that progress.
Four and a half-star rating.
Abigail’s Party runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 1 April with matinées on 29 March and 1 April. It can also be seen at the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 10 and 15 April.