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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Abigail's Party
New Ambassadors and Whitehall Theatres Winter-Spring 2002-2003

This satiric comedy was created 25 years ago by Mike Leigh (he of the award-winning films) in his signature manner of directing a cast in improvs and then writing a script inspired by them. It premiered at the fringe Hampstead theatre, and now that that theatre is closing (to move to new premises) they chose this revival as their farewell to the old house.

After a very successful run there, it has transferred to the West End, where it is likely to be just as successful, though perhaps not quite in the same way it was in 1977.

Leigh shows us the suburban cocktail-party-from-hell, complete with over-anxious hostess trying too hard, distracted guests, flirtations that may or may not be innocent, small talk that can't help wandering into dangerous territories, and eventually the almost complete breakdown of civility.

This stylish revival retains all the play's laughs, though the filter of a quarter-century may protect the audience from the biting shock of self-recognition the original had.

If the laughs - and the protective distance - don't start the minute we see designer Jonathan Fensom's embarrassingly 70s-era furniture, they do when hostess Elizabeth Berrington enters in her trying-too-hard dress from whose neckline she seems in constant danger of spilling out.

Berrington's character and her spot-on performance are the driving force of both the comedy and the increasing sense of uneasiness, as her graciousness decomposes into the frenzy of an unhappy woman trying desperately to control at least this one evening.

The play shows us that in this insecurely middle-class world  everything from the pouring of drinks to the selection of music is charged with subtexts of frustration, resentments and fear, and David Grindley's direction artfully moves from barely hinting at, and then remorselessly exposing the darker emotions.

So, for example, when Berrington's character first reminds her husband ( Jeremy Swift) to buy drinks for the party, there is only the slightest hint of an edge to her voice, but one we'll remember later when the gloves come off. Rosie Cavaliero and Steffan Rhodri as one guest couple enter with what seems at first the normal awkwardness of newcomers, but we quickly begin to sense the tension between them.

Abigail, incidentally, is not present. She's the teenage daughter of another guest played by Wendy Nottingham, and is having a party of her own while mother is here, the source of only part of her mother's inability to get into the swing of things.

What keeps the play from total success is in part its own limitations and in part a passage of time that is not the author's fault.

Even back in 1977 I felt Leigh was getting away a little too easily by poking fun at characters and situations that were too close to TV-sitcom-level stereotypes, while the play has a couple of sudden and clashing shifts in tone near the end that really don't work.

Meanwhile, Alan Ayckbourn has spent the quarter-century mining the territory of comic middle class angst somewhat more artfully, so that now this play seems to be delivering old news.

And that, along with the temptation to watch it as a harmless period piece rather than a reflection of reality, brings Abigail's Party even closer to the sitcom level. It is a funny sitcom, though, and the occasional bites that still remain make it worth a visit.

.Gerald Berkowitz

Click through for a review of another production of Abigail's Party 2012

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Review - Abigail's Party - Ambassador's 2002
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