Review: Abigail's Party
Image: Queen's Theatre Hornchurch
Liam Bergin - Tony
Amy Downham - Angela
Susie Emmett - Susan
Melanie Gutteridge - Beverly
Christopher Staines - Laurence
Beverly and husband Laurence are entertaining their newlywed neighbours.
Joining them is twitchy divorcee Sue, banished from the party of her teenage daughter.
Over a stack of cheesy-pineapple sticks, small talk and splashes of alcohol, the appalling host's soiree soon descends into chaos.
As the sniping begins, this delicious comedy cracks open social climbing suburbia to savagely funny effect.
Set in seventies Romford, with Donna Summer top of the hit parade and adults behaving disgracefully, join us for a great night out at the drinks party from hell!
Made famous by the BBC 'Play for Today' starring Alison Steadman, this fresh but faithful look at an iconic classic is directed by Douglas Rintoul (Made in Dagenham, The Crucible, Rope).
Neighbours round for a social evening of chat and drinks sounds an unlikely set-up for a play that would go on to become almost universally famous - or infamous might be a better description.
Back in 1977, when Mike Leigh first aired 'Abigail's Party' at Hampstead Theatre, I doubt that he foresaw just how significant his play was going to become and what an indelible impression it and his central character would effect on the British psyche and British comedy.
Melanie Gutteridge as Beverly - photo by Mark Sepple
Abigail's Party is the drinks party from hell, with the hostess from hell - Beverly - at the centre of it all.
If you're one of the few people who don't know the play, the title does not refer to the drinks party we observe - but another party being held in a neighbouring house by Abigail, the fifteen year-old daughter of divorcee Sue.
Leaving her offspring and her pals to their teenage revelries, Sue joins new neighbours Tony and Angela at the home of Beverly and her estate agent hubby, Laurence, for what is meant to be a neighbourly gathering of relaxation and chit-chat, lubricated by a few drinks.
But as the alcohol flows liberally and continually, we find the sniping between Laurence and Beverly reaching a crescendo, terminating in tragedy.
The play is set in 'theoretical Romford', a town that is a mere stone's throw from the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch, which lends an appropriate locational backdrop to this authoritative, faithful and riveting revival, almost as though the play is coming home to its roots.
In this production, the Queen's Theatre's artistic director, Douglas Rintoul, is in charge and doesn't put a foot wrong in delivering a pitch-perfect rendition of Mike Leigh's brilliantly devised comedy of manners.
Though I'm sure actors would fight tooth and nail to be in the cast of this show, it must also be a daunting prospect when the original cast produced such memorable and hugely distinctive performances.
And it's not just the performances which count.
Watching the play this time round I was struck by just how much business the actors have to deal with - endless pouring of drinks, smoking, putting albums on the stereo etc - and the split-second timing required to bring together all the elements of this comedic masterpiece.
But the cast here make the enterprise look effortless and simultaneously manage to stamp their own authority on the roles, reinvigorating them in the process.
(From left) Amy Downham, Melanie Gutteridge, Liam Bergin, Susie Emmett - photo by Mark Sepple
Melanie Gutteridge is simply spellbinding as hostess Beverly, realising an overbearing, blunt, almost dictatorial woman who won't take no for an answer when it comes to doling out gin and tonics, loves the songs of Demis Roussos and doesn't think conversation is "having fun".
Christopher Staines is Beverly's overworked, long-suffering spouse Laurence who
proudly shows off his leather bound, gold-embossed library of the works of Dickens and Shakespeare - even if he finds the latter unreadable - and has to endure Beverly's frequent jibes and humiliations.
Amy Downham ably convinces and impresses as the bubbly and loquacious Angie who drools over her neighbour's kitchen and candelabra, and drinks like a veritable fish.
She's well-contrasted with Liam Bergin's well-defined Tony, a man of few words who, Angie tells us, wants to 'sellotape' his wife's mouth on occasion.
And Susie Emmett finds exactly the right tone for the prim, polite and proper Sue who is completely out of her depth in the gathering, reluctantly downing Beverly's endless gin and tonics with inevitable consequences.
Lee Newby's lovingly-designed and evocative set deserves special mention, taking us back to the dodgy interior design of 70's homes and featuring the all-important free-standing bar.
It's almost as fascinating to observe the audience's reaction during the play as watching the on-stage antics of the characters.
At one point, the man sitting behind me simply couldn't stop chuckling - even long after the line which brought on his giggling had passed.
And the laughter builds each time Beverly pours another gin and tonic for reluctant drinker, Sue - a kind of running joke in the early part of proceedings.
During Abigail's Party we're often faced with sad and sometimes painful situations which surface in the conflict between the two pairs of spouses and the predicament of the reserved Sue, as well as in the tragic denouement.
But that doesn't stop us from seeing the comedy in even the most poignant moments, and therein lies the real genius of Mike Leigh's play and which makes it still relevant, deliriously funny and truly unmissable.
Note: A contemporary response to Abigail's Party called Abi by Atiha Sen Gupta, from an original idea by Sarah Brigham, is also currently playing at Queen's Theatre Hornhcurch - you can read our review of that show here.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Queen's Theatre (Hornchurch)
Our show listing for Abigail's Party
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