Review: Abigail’s Party the celebrated suburban soiree from Hell at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Abigail's Party: (standing) Amanda Abbington as Beverly (seated left to right Rose Keegan as Susan,

Abigail's Party: (standing) Amanda Abbington as Beverly (seated left to right Rose Keegan as Susan, Ben Caplan as Laurence and Charlotte Mills as Angela - Credit: Archant

It is 1977 (again) and part-time department store beautician Beverly and her short-tempered, workaholic estate-agent husband Laurence (Ben Caplan) are entertaining.

They have invited in their new neighbours, the excitable Angela and her computer operator husband Tony who once played for Crystal Palace, or so we are told. To complete the guest-list, the two couples are joined by middle-class divorcée, Susan (Rose Keegan) from up the road, who has vacated her house for her 15 year-old daughter Abigail’s party.

On the 40th anniversary of its creation, The Theatre Royal Bath revives Mike Leigh’s celebrated suburban soirée from hell, Abigail’s Party, starring Amanda Abbington (best known as Mary Morstan in BBC1’s Sherlock) as the iconic Essex hostess, Beverly.

The revival of the play does not lack challenges for director Sarah Esdaile. The characters and their dialogue were created by the original cast through Mike Leigh’s unique process of improvisation. Who can forget Alison Steadman’s Beverly strutting across the room with her cheese and pineapple sticks? Esdaile has had to make the dialogue sit as naturally as the original but at the same time avoid imitation.

Abbington brings a great energy to the stage with an enthusiasm for having a good time that almost masks her desperation as a frustrated housewife. While Ciaran Owen’s Tony is excruciatingly enjoyable to watch as he slumps into an armchair inwardly seething at his wife’s platitudes. Who later says about him that he’s a bit nasty, “Like the other day, he said to me, he’d like to sellotape my mouth. And that’s not very nice is it?”

Rose Keegan’s Susan, the fragile ex-wife of an architect, appears beyond harm from the other women’s tactlessness, as if she has taken a hearty dose of valium before calling round. This reduces the impact of thoughtless lines like Angela’s “We were getting married the same time you were getting divorced,” as it seems nothing will tip her over the edge.

There is no doubt from Janet Bird’s design that we are in 1977, from the wooden panelled ceiling, the shag pile carpet and the beige three piece leather suite, but it does raise the question of whether reviving a play that was once a contemporary reflection of people you would least like to be trapped in a lift with, works or is diminished through the inevitable nostalgia for the period.

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That said, if you’ve never seen a production of this play, it’s worth a watch.