The simmering discontent of Mike Leigh’s suburban dystopia


Abigail’s Party: Lighthouse, Poole

The original stage and screen production of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party caught the zeitgeist so perfectly that it is impossible to take it out of 1977.

What this revival by co-producers, Theatre Royal Bath and Chocolate Factory, achieves is a stunning re-reading of Leigh’s searing observation of the aspirations, hopes and lost dreams of suburban life.

The subtlety has been toned down and the characterisations cranked up. Somehow though it works. The original scenario: a nightmare drink and nibbles do as estate agent Laurence and his overbearing wife Beverly entertain the neighbours with disastrous consequences is both tragic and laugh out-loud funny.

EastEnders actress Hannah Waterman does the near impossible and steps out from the shadow of Alison Steadman who played the original Beverly 36 long years ago. Playing this self-obsessed control-freak forcing booze, cigarettes and cheese and pineapple snacks on her hapless guests requires a masterful piece of acting. Waterman glides through the deceptively difficult role with apparent ease conjuring up the coarse, selfish, unthinking Beverly as she creates her own suburban horror story.

Martin Marquez meanwhile articulates a real sense of distress as overworked, hen-pecked husband Laurence while Samuel James and Katie Lightfoot are excellent as new neighbours Tony and Angela from the “smaller” houses over the road.

Instantly cast by wannabe social-climber Laurence as inferiors, an uncomprehending Angela wallops her way through the gin while strong, silent and fairly thick Tony attracts the simmering sexual attentions of the increasingly ghastly Beverly.

There’s fine acting too from Emily Raymond as Susan, the straight-laced rather upmarket divorcee suffering parental palpitations over a party being thrown by her wild-child daughter – the unseen Abigail of the title.

With music by Donna Summer and Demis Roussos in the background the living room set is a brown and orange masterpiece of 1970s kitsch. It has everything from a G-Plan style room divider and shag-pile rugs to geometric wallpaper and smoked-glass coffee table.

*Abigail’s Party is at Lighthouse until Saturday March 23. For anyone  interested in  comparisons, the original 1977 Play for Today TV production is being screened on BBC-4 at 10.00pm tomorrow ( Thursday March 21). If you want to see it though I suggest you record it and spend the evening watching this splendid  stage version at Lighthouse. 

Jeremy Miles

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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