The New Theatre season has arrived, kicking off with a brilliant piece of comedy-drama that is as witty as it is well observed. Abigail’s Party sweeps us back to 1977 to give us an insight into middle class domestic life; the play centres on an evening party held by aspiration-driven couple Beverly and Laurence, to which they invite their new neighbours Angela and Tony, and their recently divorced neighbour Susan – whose eponymous teenage daughter Abigail is holding a party next door. At times both hilarious and excruciating, we witness an agonisingly compelling evening where our five characters struggle, and eventually fail, to ‘enjoy themselves’ and, most importantly, keep up appearances.
Mike Leigh’s sharp script is one that requires careful characterisation, and our five actors stepped up to the task with ease. Thought had clearly gone into representing the different dynamics of the three households – each representing three distinct hues of the ‘middle class’ – making for a highly believable performance. Emma Dearden’s hysterically larger-than-life portrayal of our hostess is wonderfully tempered by Alex Mawby’s portrayal of her frustrated, hen-pecked husband – both delivered credible performances, holding together the many threads running through the play. Verity Spencer is to be particularly commended for her portrayal of Angela, which provoked laugher and pity whilst emanating a sense of warmth. Jacob Hayes and Emily Brady were given the fewest lines as Tony and Susan – but both brought their mostly monosyllabic characters to life with nuanced facial expressions and impeccable timing.
The audience was carried effortlessly through the evening as the gin and tonics flowed and the tensions gradually mounted, eventually spiralling towards an abrupt and somewhat farcical climax where the power balance dramatically shifted and the underlying stresses of suburban life were tragically revealed. There were some parts of the plot that I feel were a little underplayed, and more careful pacing would have added to the comic effect – however this did not impede my overall enjoyment of an otherwise superb production.
With only two and a half weeks on their side, first time directors Charlie Sassienie and Matt Miller did an admirable job of creating this subtly complex play. Credit goes to the backstage team for creating a fabulous set, which was a fitting monument to 1970s kitsch. From the fibre optic lamp to the appalling patterned wallpaper, the team certainly succeeded in producing a convincing snapshot of the era – which was complemented by the nostalgic 70s soundtrack of rock and pop hits. There was a joy in spotting all the tiny details of this thorough and comprehensive production – look out for a vintage edition of Cosmopolitan!
All in all, the New Theatre has succeeded in producing a painfully enjoyable play which will immerse you in the intricacies of a past era, but will provoke telling revelations about middle class domesticity that still apply today. It will certainly get you thinking, and is definitely worth a watch!