Walking into the auditorium of the Devonshire Park Theatre and seeing the set for the Theatre Royal Bath production of Mike Leigh’s tragicomic play, Abigail’s Party, was like stepping back into my parent’s living room circa 1977.
With a huge MFI display unit, complete with cocktail cabinet, housing a record player and speakers, Reader’s Digest editions of the complete works of Charles Dickens, and a Trimphone, shag pile carpets and a fibre optic lamp, the set is the epitome of 1970’s naffness – and an almost exact copy of the living room I remember from my childhood.
Into the room comes Beverly, looking stunning in an ankle length cream coloured dress. Donna Summer’s I Feel Love soon fills the air and for several minutes all we see is Beverly gyrating around the room as she loses herself in the music, while waiting for her husband, and their guests for the evening, to arrive.
For those who have seen the superb BBC TV production, starring the amazing Alison Steadman, the evening holds no surprises but, for the uninitiated, watching the evening unfold is like watching a car crash, in ultra slow motion, and knowing that, rather than trying to save anyone, all you can do is watch in horror, cringing.
Amanda Abbington takes on the role of Beverly and really makes it her own. She takes control of the evening, and the guests, with a charm that never actually manages to cover over the menace beneath, and the audience winces as they hear her use the word “Please” in such a threatening way.
Beverly’s husband, Lawrence (Ben Caplan), is an overworked and stressed out Estate Agent who has realised, all too late, that he is stuck in a loveless marriage with a woman who shares none of his passions, like art, classical music and olives, prefering instead to listen to Demis Roussos while drinking gin and smoking.
The guests for the evening are neighbours Tony and Angela, who have just moved in to the road, and divorcee Susan, who’s 15 year old daughter Abigail is having a, very loud, party at their home.
Rose Keegan is wonderfully “mouseish” as Susan, accepting all the food and drink that she is offered, while truly wanting none of it. She feels like a loser, because her husband ran off with another woman, and the conversation of the evening does nothing to help her flagging self esteem.
Tony is played as a monosylabic and quite miserable character by Ciarán Owens. Never really warming to the assembled company, especially Lawrence (who is continually trying to prove his higher status), he only comes to life after several Bacardi and cokes when he starts to respond to Beverly’s merciless flirting.
His wife, Angela, is a nurse who displays her “heart of gold” firmly on her sleeve and who allows Beverly to lead her astray at every opportunity. Charlotte Mills is simply excellent in this role and works it for every ounce of comedy that she can squeeze out of the part. We laugh along when we see her frantically gyrating when Lawrence asks her for a slow dance, chuckle as she eats the lion’s share of the cheese and pineapple nibbly bits and reel back in shock when we suddenly see her husband bullying her in act two.
When this piece was first performed back in the 1977 the critics were split. Some hailed it as a masterpiece of theatre and a superb reflection of many people’s surburban life while others pointed to it’s depiction of class in a negative way. Time has managed to bring opposing opinions together and the play is now regarded as a modern classic and, with such a high class and quality production as this, one that everyone should see at least once.
***** Five Stars