Reviewed by Rosalie Carter
There’s something wonderfully hideous about watching Abigail’s Party. Perhaps it’s the shag pile rug underneath a glass topped table. Perhaps it’s the constant flow of rum and cokes that the characters first tried on the exotic beaches of Majorca. It could even be the wide lapels and pinstripe suits that are so dated, every hipster in Dalston is wearing them. But if you put all the elements together, alongside Mike Leigh’s script, it has the makings of a sublimely ridiculous evening’s entertainment.
Set in Essex in the 1970s (basically my mum’s childhood home) the action takes place at a cocktail party thrown by the vivacious and caterwauling Beverly and her straight-laced husband Laurence. The guests are young couple Angela and Tony, who have recently moved to the area and Susan who has sought refuge from her teenage daughter Abigail’s party. Once introductions have been made and the first gin and tonic poured, these characters slowly unpick each other’s pretensions and aspirations until the plays climatic finale.
As Beverly, Hannah Waterman oozes trashy sex appeal from the top of her Farrah Faucet styled locks to her platform heels. She slinks about the stage in a floor length gown, provocatively sashaying for the benefit of her friend’s husband Tony. Waterman manages to avoid turning the character into a cliché and shows the audience the cracks in Bervely’s ego which she paper’s over with smiles and flirtation. The chemistry between Waterman and Samuel James (playing Tony) is electric, with both characters undressing each other with lingering looks, which provides an interesting contrast between the snippy bitterness between Beverly and her husband Laurence.
As Laurence, Martin Marquez provides the straight-laced, pretentious foil for Beverly’s outrageous behaviour, but although he gives a convincing performance as a man obsessed with material possessions, Marquez’s voice is grating and feels forced. Samuel James’ performance as Tony bristles with repressed anger which contrasts Katie Lightfoot’s sweetness and light filled Angela. The cast work well as an ensemble but the focus is constantly pulled to Waterman’s powerhouse performance as Beverly.
Mike Britton’s set is gloriously kitsch with clashing fabrics and colours covering every surface. The mini bar overflows with spirits, while tiny cheese and pineapple on sticks are offered to the party guests. Although Britton’s set isn’t welcoming, it does invoke the sense of importance that Beverly and Laurence place on material items and almost becomes a cage the actors fight to get out of.
The pace of the action slowly builds with tension constantly bubbling beneath the meandering conversation. Tom Attenborough’s direction subtly drives the action into realistic awkward moments which has the audience squirming in their seats but this may have been lost on some of the younger members of the audience. Leigh’s modern classic is currently on the GCSE syllabus but this play is certainly not one for all the family.
Abigail’s Party gives the audience a snapshot of 1970s suburbia and unlike Desperate Housewives the plot is driven by realistic characters and superb performances.