Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party is one that is so ingrained in modern culture that it could potentially be reduced to clichés – cheese and pineapple sticks, garish décor and Donna Summer.
But although these may have raised a few wry smiles from members of the audience at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, there is something about this suffocating suburban world that still resonates today.
Of course, we do not actually see Abigail. She is the teenage daughter of middle-aged divorcee Susan who is a guest at Beverley’s party across the road. So while we might wish we were at Abigail’s party, we instead find ourselves in the company of Beverley, her estate agent husband Laurence, their neighbours Tony and Angela and Susan.
The main characters are all ghastly in their own ways. Beverley flirts disgracefully with Tony and criticises Laurence even as he lays dying at the end. Laurence thinks of himself as an expert on art and says he likes olives but admits he has not read the Dickens on his shelves. Meanwhile, the quiet, sullen Tony is about as cultured as a broom; not only that but we also see that he is racist and emotionally abusive he is towards his wife.
What makes this production so successful are the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – facial expressions, the sidelong glances and the excruciating awkwardness of the situation. Tony looks bored with the conversations about how wonderful Beverley’s kitchen is, while Susan clearly feels uneasy throughout the whole dismal event. There are moments of pure hilarity, such as when the two couples dance with each other’s partners: while Beverley and Tony dance in a passionate embrace, a very awkward Laurence and Angela do a strange, non-contact jive before Laurence formally shakes her hand.
During the course of the play we see the nuances of British middle class played out in the harshest of environments. The characters compete with each other and are often downright rude, while the fraught marriages of Tony and Angela and Beverley and Laurence unravel before our eyes as the alcohol strips away the social niceties.
This production, which is directed by Lindsay Posner, is made all the more convincing by the wonderfully retro set design which includes clashing brown patterned wallpaper, huge house plants and cut glass ashtrays.
Abigail’s Party is on until Saturday. For tickets see the Theatre Royal website.