Mike Leigh’s classic is brought to life in all its comic darkness in Highbury Theatre’s latest offering.
Abigail’s Party premiered as a play for television back in 1977 on the BBC. Nearly fifty years on, it remains as funny and insightful about pretension, social class and relationships as it ever was. In this latest production from the Highbury Players, a strong cast is ably lead by Eliza Harris as the ultimate passive-aggressive hostess Beverly.
Alison Steadman’s performance in the iconic role looms large over any production of this play and as Eliza herself notes, “it’s hard not to hear her voice in every line.” Although she chooses to adopt Steadman’s intonation and tone, she makes the part her own and her bullying is arguably more subtle. Micro-aggressions are delivered with a knowing twinkle in the eye as cheese and pineapple sticks are forced upon her trapped guests.
Famously, not much happens in Abigail’s Party. We never meet fifteen-year-old Abigail herself. The action takes place off stage for most of the play, distant music the only reminder to the audience that there is a party going on but it is very much elsewhere. The entire play takes place in the living room of Beverly and Laurence’s suburban home. Malcolm Robertshaw’s set, with lava lamp and cocktail cabinet, nicely brings the 1970s to life in a design which feels appropriately cramped and claustrophobic. We are in the territory of a middle-class couple keen to display their belongings and assert their success.
Director Ian Appleby has assembled a talented cast: Mike Leigh’s wonderfully witty writing and dark humour is handled well. Tensions simmer under the surface throughout and hilarity is never far from heartbreak, particularly in the shocking and tragic denouement.
In the role of Beverly’s husband Laurence, Martin Walker nicely captures the status anxiety of the estate agent keen to showcase his intellectual and cultural cachet. “Our nation’s culture” he proudly declares, wielding his copy of Macbeth - “Not something you can actually read, of course.” Middle-class pretensions brilliantly skewered, as with so many lines in this genius play.
New neighbours Angela and Tony are the unfortunate guests, or victims, invited into Beverly and Laurence’s suburban den. Sharon Clayton is excellent as Angela, a wide-eyed nurse who is constantly impressed by everything she sees in her hosts’ home and has not yet learned to temper her amazement. “Is it real silver?” she fawns over Beverly’s candelabra. There’s no agenda with Angela. She is not bored and bitter in the way that Beverly is and consequently we feel more for her than any other character. Hints at domestic violence in her seemingly loveless marriage to Tony (Daniel Burnham – cold and brooding) are brilliantly juxtaposed with her vapid but often hilarious twitterings.
In a wonderfully pensive performance, Valerie Tomlinson completes the cast as Abigail’s mother Sue. Effectively thrown out of her own home while her daughter parties, Sue is stoical in the face of Beverly’s aggressive attentions and Angela’s deeply personal questions.
As with all great writing, what makes Abigail’s Party such a pleasure to watch is the many layers on which it can be enjoyed. It is dark farce, piercing social satire and domestic drama rolled into one. The comedy and tragedy are perfectly balanced in this winning production. Highly recommended.