Rather than the party that the title promises, we are presented with a gathering that stinks of second best. In Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh’s 1977 suburban comedy, a bizarre gathering of misfits collect together in Beverly and Laurence’s living room to socialise as neighbours. The adults’ conversation is frequently overwhelmed by the absent scenes of revelry as hostess Beverly vicariously lingers on all the fun the teenagers down the road must be having at Abigail’s party. With no apparent concern for the anxieties of the 15-year-old Abigail’s mother Sue, this almost unremitting focus brings into stark contrast how dispiritingly pathetic the adults’ attempts at fun are, how closely the characters and relationships teeter on the edge of breakdown, and how socially inept each person is. All this is framed by the contextual background of an emerging middle class, lending the eclectic mix of people a social, as well as a satirical, point.
Beverly and Laurence conscientiously – and often aggressively – play hosts, pouring drinks with a readiness that exposes the extent to which we lean on social niceties to ease away awkwardness. The food, drink and music choices made by their guests become part of the battleground upon which their marriage is forged, each issue becoming a matter of serious contention that highlights the depth of the rift between them. Meanwhile, Angela’s almost idiotically gormless lack of grace – which Natalie Casey uses adeptly to characterise her character’s social awkwardness – enables her to make deadpan cutting comments and ask the probing questions that all usual social tact would prohibit, thus serving to expose both the misery of her own marriage to Tony and the unhappiness of divorcee Sue.
Across the board, the cast pull out every stereotypical element of their characters and enhance it twofold, extracting every possible ounce of comedy from Mike Leigh’s script. Without overdoing it, it is Jill Halfpenny’s charisma that drives the conversation: from Beverly’s sexual advances on Tone (Joe Absolom), to the easy familiarity with which she commands and dominates her guests and husband, along with the slinky lurid green dress that highlights that the gaudiness of the living room is of her making, she is quite clearly a force to be reckoned with. The exquisite casting is only truly recognisable when Beverly starts up conversations alongside Laurence’s: despite the latter actually saying something of note, the force of Andy Nyman’s personality is quite incomparable to Halfpenny’s and, just like his character, he stands no chance at retaining our attention. Meanwhile, Susannah Harker (as Abigail’s mother Sue) is understatedly wonderful, bringing the naturalistic skills honed at London’s best off-West End playhouses to the fore. She entirely embodies the pitifully well-meaning walkover, from the subtle tonal shifts for her “thank yous”, to the way she very slightly flinches at the proprietary and overbearing way her hosts interact with her. Of all the characters, I believe in her; I feel I know someone just like her.
The cast’s skills, and Lyndsay Posner’s directorial abilities, are apparent in the extent to which they carefully manipulate moments for their entertainment value whilst retaining a sense of realism. By Leigh’s adherence to the Aristotelean three unities of time, place and action, he grounds the play in verisimilitude. It is this which is directly responsible for making the people-watching such fascinating entertainment, and this production does not forget it. Each character remains a recognisable one so that even as the situation unravels it does so in a surprisingly controlled manner (until, that is, right at the end when farce takes over). Utterly engaging, although I didn’t laugh as much as many, the two hours did speed by and, from the rapturous applause and standing ovation at the end, I’d say this will be a sure fire West End hit.
Abigail’s Party is booking at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 1 September. For more information and tickets, see the Wyndham’s Theatre website.