Review: Abigail’s Party – Menier Chocolate Factory, London

You can’t choose your family, so the saying goes. The same can also be said about your neighbours. For residents of Richmond Road, somewhere in the vicinity of Romford, those neighbours include Beverly, an overpowering creature who brow-beats both her husband and her neighbours by sheer force of will.

There’s an extra character here in the Menier Chocolate factory’s spot on revival, Mike Britton’s set. As the audience take their seats, they stop without fail at the front of the stage to admire the hideously accurate recreation of 70s suburbia. The large print wallpaper, the sheepskin rug, the ornaments – all sparking a sense of déjà vu for those who remember those, thankfully now past, fashions.

The set provides a deceptively innocuous setting for the social bloodbath about to take place. Beverley is holding court, hosting a party for neighbours. In the confines of the living room the façade of happy relationship slips and the fake smiles barely concealing the loathing.

There can be few who don’t know at least the outline of Mike Leigh’s classic play, though Lindsay Posner’s production treats it as if it was a new piece. We may know what is coming but there’s no attempt to ape those iconic performances of Alision Stedman and the rest of the original 1977 cast. Though much copied over the years, and often dismissed as a throwaway comedy, there’s a real challenge for the cast to make what are at heart thoroughly unlikeable characters real and three dimensional. It is all too easy to play them as grotesque but truth is these are all too easily recognisable.

Andy Nyman’s henpecked Laurence isn’t perhaps the weakling that would first seem. We almost feel sorry for him but there’s a streak of selfishness here that stops us. We also veer towards sympathy for Natalie Casey’s Angela, using drink to hide her dawning realisation that her husband Tony (a monosyllabic, glowering Joe Absalom) isn’t just ‘nasty’ but has a violent side as well. The sympathy is tempered though with a growing frustration over Angela’s sheer determination to be ‘nice’. Perhaps the only character we can feel sympathy for is Susannah Harker’s delightfully polite Sue, taking refuge from her teenage daughter’s wild party. A masterclass in the sly look, raised eyes and 101 ways to say thank you, there’s times when you want to help Harker escape this madhouse.

Presiding over proceedings as a gin toting dictator is Jill Halfpenny’s Beverly – a vision of glamour clad in her attention seeking green ball gown. Halfpenny’s creation is delightfully awful, outwardly blissfully unaware of her guests discomfort but actually cannily pulling just the right strings to ensure she remains the centre of attention. Yes she is a monster but there is reasoning behind it, frustration, ignorance and a desperate need to be loved, however destructive that love proves to be.

In its 35th anniversary year, Abigail’s Party shows no sign of settling down into respectable middle age and still offers that opportunity for audiences to watch and think ‘there for the grace of God go I’. As Beverley utters countless times, simply ‘Fantastic’

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