Long before Channel 4’s Come Dine With Me threw five mis-matched party guests together, Mike Leigh had beaten them to it, creating the cocktail party from Hell.
Abigail’s Party may now be over 30 years old but, in Two Rivers Theatre Company’s production, Leigh’s brutally dark comedy remains as fresh as ever.
In late 1970s suburbia, the dresses are nearly as loud as the wallpaper and, for hostess Beverly, her guests are little more than flies caught in her spider’s web.
There’s little to bind these five together apart from living on the same street and, fuelled by Beverly’s incessant pouring of alcohol, it’s not surprising that tensions are high and sparks begin to fly.
New neighbours Angela and Tony may initially seem happily married but there’s something missing in their relationship. She, the slightly dizzy nurse eager to impress, he, the target of Beverly’s predatory advances. Long term neighbour Susan is taking refuge while her rebellious daughter, Abigail, holds a wild party next door but would rather be anywhere else and Beverly’s long suffering husband, Lawrence, would rather be anywhere else.
It is all too easy to play these characters as monstrous caricatures but the real success of this production is to play the characters as totally believable, over the top and unlikeable yes but characters that the audience can painfully identify with.
Brian England and Jon Pettman’s Lawrence and Tony may think they wear the trousers in their respective marriages but it’s the women who have the strongest hand here.
Petra Risbridger’s dizzy Angela is delightful comic creation, easily led and gullible but with an openness to say what perhaps the others are only thinking. Val Eldridge’s Susan would rather be anywhere else than here, uncomfortable and out of place, it is a beautifully subtle observation.
Then there’s Georgy Jamieson’s Beverly, a turquoise eye-shadowed horror. Casting away any shadow of Alison Steadman’s iconic original, Jamieson is mesmerising, it is like watching an accident unfold, appalling yet gripping. Predatory, aggressive and shocking – this is a woman used to getting her own way. Yet, on the other hand, there is a sadness and vulnerability about her, unloved and insecure, her bullying is perhaps compensation for an inner sadness.
Dennis Bowron’s direction keeps the action, as well as the drink, flowing playing the action straight and allowing the laughs to come from the characters rather than gimmicks. There are moments in the second act where the pace drops slightly but this is easily rectified during the run.
Barry Eldridge’s design is full of spot on period detail, from the compulsory fibre optic light to the gaudy large print wallpaper.
Though audiences are unlikely to ever willingly admit it, there are many character traits on display that we can all recognise and, unlike the ubiquitous cheese and pineapple sticks, as long as people are hosting neighbourly gatherings, Abigail’s Party is unlikely to go out of fashion.
Review originally written for The Public Reviews