The hair is big and the grievances small in Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party. Beverly and Laurence are married, but don’t like each other much. Angela and Tony are married, but don’t like each other much. Susan is divorced and consequently to be pitied by the couples, despite their own rocky relationships. This display of “suburban neuroses” is massively uncomfortable to watch – I actually caught myself grinding my teeth at one point – but deliciously so. We watch the awfully realistic people in their hideously realistic house play out some nastily realistic scenarios, replete with bickering, sniping, whinging, thinly-veiled racism and just-avoided infidelity.
It is difficult to watch mainly because it is so well acted. The dialogue (Mike Leigh) is occasionally a little clunky, but the cast do wonders with a pause or a withering look under Lindsay Posner’s excellent direction. Hannah Waterman, as the dreadful Beverly, is just exquisitely awful. She is indelicate, bitchy, manipulative and unpleasant beneath a veneer of civility and hairspray. Her interactions with her female guests are a masterclass in why women should sometimes beware women, as she belittles Sue (a brilliant Emily Raymond) and bullies Angela (Katie Lightfoot), and the way she flirts with sole male guest, monosyllabic Tony (a wonderfully understated Samuel Jones) is beyond shame. What Posner, and tour Director Tom Attenborough, manage to bring out is the seething tensions that lie underneath the ostensible suburban civility – it doesn’t take much to reveal the cracks in relationships and the barely-contained unpleasantness behind brittle smiles.
Mike Britton’s orange and brown set, with a real leather three-piece suite, is a masterpiece of hideous 70s design. Beverly, the queen of the backhanded compliment and innocent-seeming put-down, reigns supreme in her neat domestic world, keeping husband Laurence on a short leash and making sure that all of her guests are under her thumb at all times. The orange and brown colour scheme is resplendently ugly, allowing Beverly to show off how comfortable her life – the only reason she holds on to Laurence, she would have us believe, is that he’s happy to give her money for a new dress, more jewellery or to have her hair done.
It’s a fine production that looks wonderful and is brilliantly acted. My one criticism is of the ending: would nurse Angela really be able to switch into crisis mode after 11 (yes, 11) gins and tonic? And the very end of the play is just bizarre; is Angela’s cramp a subtle ploy to regain control of her straying husband from Beverly, or a genuine problem? It all ends in confusion and is slightly disappointing as a climax to an otherwise exquisitely acted evening. Jokes about Beaujolais and Beethoven go down well in Bath, unsurprisingly, although some of the humour is slightly dated. All in all, though, this a superb production of a well-written play that really brings out the pettiness and foibles of the suburban middle class. Excruciatingly good.
Abigail’s Party is at Theatre Royal Bath until 13 April, before continuing its tour.