The popularity of this dark comedy of manners by Mike Leigh, aside from its intrinsic merits, rests very much on the television recording of the original production as part of the BBC’s Play For Today series that, thanks to a strike at ITV attracted, 16 million viewers. The nation warmed to this achingly bleak observation of the British class system as it flourished in the late 1970s and made a household name of its star, Alison Steadman as the hostess Beverly.
Jill Halfpenny (Beverley) and seated, Nathalie Casey (Angela), Andy Nyman (Laurence) and Susannah Harker (Susan) in Abigail's Party at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Here, Lindsay Posner’s production is pitched perfectly. It is neither a slavish copy of the original nor an awkward re-imagining for the present day. Thanks to Mike Britton’s keenly observed set, a kaleidoscope of browns, orange, sheepskin and objets d’art, the period and its questionable glamour is resurrected rather than regurgitated.
The cast inhabit their roles with utter conviction, bringing pace and life to the dialogue while placing a very personal stamp on the familiar characters. There is a fragility to Jill Halfpenny that brings a new dimension to Beverly. She is no less the monster, bullying her guests into having a good time while belittling her husband but Halfpenny offers occasional flashes of despair, albeit momentary and usually allayed with yet another gin and tonic.
If Beverly is something of a lost soul in the prime of her life, then Andy Nyman’s Laurence is a man teetering on the edge. At turns aggressive and condescending, Nyman captures the middle-aged, lower middle-class angst to perfection, particularly as he attempts to find common ground with Susannah Harker’s desperately polite Susan. Joe Absolom brings a lighter side to the surly Tony, making a much more convincing target for Beverly’s attention while Natalie Casey is sublime as the gauche, but ultimately practical Angela.