The Theatreguide.London Review
Menier Chocolate Factory Spring 2012; Wyndham's Theatre Summer 2012
Mike Leigh's dark comedy of 1977 is a deserved classic, capturing through the lens of satire a devastatingly accurate portrait of one piece of Britain in the 1970s – a new middle class with more aspirations than taste. And though the temptation is there to view the play through the smug comfort of thirty-five years later, there is more than enough that is still true about the picture to generate the cringing embarrassment of self-recognition.
We're in the suburban home of Beverly and Laurence for an informal drinks evening with new neighbours Angela and Tony, and older neighbour Susan. (Abigail, Susan's teenage daughter, is having her own party up the street, which we'll never see, but hear about from time to time.)
'Informal', it turns out, is not quite the right word, because Beverly is so determined to be the perfect hostess that she turns bully, forcing drinks, cigarettes, awkward conversational topics and Demis Roussos records on her guests with all the grace and charm of a drill sergeant.
As the liquor flows and no one relaxes, marital tensions will be exposed, someone will be ill, innocent flirtations will approach the boundary of too-far, and eventually something very serious will happen. (That last step is the weakest part of the play, smacking too much of we've-got-to-find-an-ending desperation.)
Much of the comedy and drama of the play comes through in this revival, though to a large extent it is despite, rather than because of the production.
Director Lindsay Posner is far too subdued and tasteful throughout, blunting the power of Leigh's satiric vision, and even Mike Britton's design for a suburban 1970s home isn't hideous enough. I have seen productions at which the curtain rose and the audience delightedly applauded the satirically accurate set, but this one really doesn't look all that dated or comic.
Jill Halfpenny's Beverly is nowhere near blowsy and vulgar enough, Natalie Casey's Angela isn't mousy enough for her later drunkenness to register fully, and Susannah Harker's Susan is underplayed to the point of near-invisibility.
In this context Andy Hyman's always-at-the-edge-of-exploding Laurence seems like overacting, though his characterisation would work if everyone else were at his level. Only Joe Absolom's quietly smouldering Tony seems to hit the right note throughout.
This is a play of such quality and eminence that it needs to be seen if you've never seen it. This is a play that is inherently funny enough and insightful enough that much of its brilliance comes through even in a less-than-ideal production. This is a less-than-ideal production.
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Review - Abigail's Party - Menier Chocolate Factory 2012