Venue: The MAC, Belfast
Writer: Mike Leigh
Director: Richard Croxford
Abigail’s Party: the very title is synonymous with social climbing, terrible fashion and big hair. The epitome of car crash drama, its creator Mike Leigh described his merciless shredding of 1970s social norms as both a lamentation and a celebration of human behaviour.
Some critics covering its much talked-about London premiere, did not agree, labelling the play “a prolonged jeer” and its creator “a cruel chronicler of suburbia’s secrets and lies”. The fact is that they are all right and on every level it remains a deliciously subversive piece of devised theatre.
Four decades on, this revival feels like a rendezvous with an old friend, with Diana Ennis’s kitsch orange and brown op art set and unfortunate costumes whisking us back in time.
Audiences experience total immersion in those crazy Seventies days, from the menu in the MAC’s restaurant (“prawn cocktail, anyone?”) to the gaudy wallpaper lining the walkway into the Upstairs space to a sound track of glam rock, popular ad jingles and favourite TV signature tunes. A pre-set announcement cleverly highlights the pressing issues of the day – Britain joining the Common Market, equal pay for women, the rising price of petrol. Plus ça change.
Richard Croxford’s sure direction nails the simmering marital tensions and upwardly mobile aspirations of a group of neighbours, who gather at Beverly and Laurence’s home in the Essex suburbs for drinks, nibbles and awkward conversation.
In the pivotal role, Roisin Gallagher is a bundle of sashaying energy and louche posturing. Her interpretation is at once humorous, desperate and grotesque. Pouting, flirting, devouring cigarettes and filling the silence with inane chatter, she moves the other players through their intimate confessions like chess pieces in a nasty little game.
The English class system is filleted by a string of subtle references and social differentiations. Over the tinkle of wine glasses and the music of Demis Roussos, there is unsettlingly casual talk about rape, domestic violence, cultural and racial differences, offering tantalising glimpses into the inner thoughts of these mismatched new best friends.
Tony is a former professional footballer, Angela is a nurse, Sue’s ex-husband is an architect, Beverly works on the make-up counter of a department store and Laurence is a busy estate agent, surely the main reason why the upwardly fixated Beverly first took an interest in him. Suddenly, however, Tony’s minor celebrity status seems far more interesting. While Sue celebrates the growing cosmopolitan flavour of the neighbourhood, Laurence sneers at the way in which the incomers are lowering the tone.
The ensemble timing and individual characterisations are pin-sharp. Brigid Shine’s chirpy Angela and Craig Miller’s glowering Tony cut a troubling picture of a young marriage on the verge of disaster, Imogen Slaughter is all clipped, tense politeness as cultured divorcee Sue, mother of the invisible Abigail, while Will Irvine’s Laurence captures the ghastly mix of smarmy charm and lurking menace that explains precisely why Beverly is the way she is.
Runs until 5 May.
A shorter version of this review was published in The Stage on 18 April 2018.