Abigail’s Party at Park Theatre
“Ice and lemon?” Mike Leigh’s seminal suburban comedy of manners returns to the London stage. Premiering at Hampstead Theatre back in 1977, the work reached millions, thanks to a hurried television adaptation following star Alison Steadman’s pregnancy. It has since gone on to become a celebrated cult classic. As Leigh enjoys a retrospective at the British Film Institute, this revival reiterates the inimitability and timelessness of the seasoned auteur.
Park 90 – the smaller space at Park Theatre – plays host to the drinks party from hell, complete with garish 70s wallpaper and a detailed set by Beth Colley. With the audience in such close proximity to the cast, the simmering tension that underlines the narrative grows even more explicit and evokes an increasingly claustrophobic, awkward atmosphere. Spectators feel like invited guests, yet voyeurs at the same time, uncomfortably witnessing the various behaviours on display. As the drinks continuously flow, the masks begin to slip, and we surge towards an inevitable climax.
The laughs come early in Vivienne Garnett’s pacy production. Despite the work’s 44 years, the director manages to excavate timely themes, including gender roles, social status and materialism. Certain lines of course feel archaic and, subsequently, a tad uneasy, however this only serves to place the characters and their actions under an even bigger microscope for a 2021 audience to inspect them. Garnett capitalises on the comedy and stays true to the text, while at the same time injecting it with fresh energy.
This is facilitated by an exceptional cast: Kellie Shirley takes the reins as monstrous hostess Beverly – a pretentious pout often taking residence on her expressive face. With sensual movements and shameless flirtation with guest Tony (Matt Di Angelo), the actor commands our attention throughout. She is well complemented by Di Angelo, who speaks in a clipped monotone, his increasing infatuation with the hostess suitably contrasting with his ever-growing hostility towards his wife Angela. Emma Noakes is well cast in this role and garners many of the laughs with her seemingly oblivious naivety and obvious envy of Beverly. It’s engaging to see the character almost morph into the lady of the house as the play progresses.
Ryan Early excels as downtrodden Laurence, who desperately seeks conversation of substance and silently seethes as his wife undermines him at every opportunity. Early depicts a man at the end of his tether – deflated and all but defeated, until he is finally pushed over the edge. Enjoying excellent chemistry with Early, Barbara D’Alterio mirrors the audience’s unease as the contained Sue; her portrayal of the character in a previous production results in a rich and nuanced performance.
Garnett, her cast and creatives succeed in making their own mark on a much-loved and much-performed play, which is no mean feat. This reprise is undoubtedly up there with the best.
Abigail’s Party is at Park Theatre from 10th November until 4th December 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.