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Abigail’s Party review at Oxford Playhouse – ‘enjoyable, but unambitious’

The cast of Abigail's Party at Oxford Playhouse. Photo: Nobby Clark The cast of Abigail's Party at Oxford Playhouse. Photo: Nobby Clark
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It’s been 40 years since Mike Leigh’s formidable Beverly first metaphorically skewered her hapless house guests with a cheese and pineapple stick. Theatre Royal Bath’s new touring production of Abigail’s Party is a fun but unambitious homage to Leigh’s most famous play.

From designer Janet Bird’s wood-panelled set – a windowed box that opens up into something akin to a 1970s double-page spread from House Beautiful – to the primary coloured glare of the clothes, Sarah Esdaile’s production takes a fetishistic delight in its period details. It’s like looking at the decade on a TV screen with the contrast stuck at maximum.

Leigh wrote Abigail’s Party in reaction to the all-encompassing consumerism that arose in the UK after the economic chill of the postwar years. Beverly’s life revolves around brands, from Barcardi to fridge freezers. She displays them proudly, like badges of success. As a general principle, you can still see it in our need for the latest Bose speakers or iPhone.

But that’s just Leigh’s basic point enduring – it isn’t pushed by the aesthetic of this production, which presents the 1970s as yet another thing to coo over. It’s as if Esdaile has pulled back the curtain and said: “Hey! Here’s what you were waiting for”. Instead of dressing the play up for the 21st century, she’s wrapped it snugly in its own reputation.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. Amanda Abbington’s Beverly is less strident than Alison Steadman’s iconic version, but she captures the excruciating brittleness of someone who needs to control a room. She wafts around, all poses and provocations, conjuring a fantasy life, alone, singing along to Donna Summer on the record player.

It’d be easy to read the play as a sneer at the nouveau riche, but, really, it’s about people straitjacketed by suburbia. The monosyllabic Tony is played as a glowering bully by Ciaran Owens, while Charlotte Mills captures his wife, Angela’s, tin-eared enthusiasm for everything like a messy spill on the shag pile carpet. The characters laugh too loudly as they let slip bitter disappointments.

In the unsparing glare of Paul Pyant’s lighting, this is comedy verging on the grotesque. Ben Caplan’s Laurence, however, is a caricature. With his stompy walk, he’s more mannerism than man, and this takes some of the sting out of his tale.

Rose Keegan provides the breakout performance. Her singsong delivery as neighbour Susan makes her sound like a Blue Peter presenter having a nervous breakdown and it just gets funnier. It lends a freshness to dialogue that, ironically, evolved from improvisation but now feels indelibly familiar.

If you already love Abigail’s Party, you’re sure to get a kick out of this production. It’s one for the fans.

 

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Verdict
An enjoyable but unimaginative revival of Mike Leigh’s classic black comedy of manners
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