Abigail's Party: Park Theatre ***
- Credit: Christian Davies
It is a conundrum that faces every director when they exhume a beloved play: do you tweak the familiar or stay true to the original?
Either approach is risky. Tamper, and you may alienate the faithful. Replicate, and you could be accused of lacking imagination.
Abigail’s Party has a further obstacle. The 1977 BBC Play For Today filmed with the original Hampstead Theatre cast is arguably definitive.
The shadow cast by Alison Steadman and co in Mike Leigh’s satire may be daunting, but director Vivienne Garnett is admirably undeterred. She has stuck to the script – quite literally – by rooting time and place in 1970s British suburbia.
Beverly (Kellie Shirley) and Laurence (Ryan Early) are preparing for a party, the setting is reassuringly garish — replete with the sort of kitsch orange and brown décor fans will recognise. Candelabra and all.
Hostility bubbles between them even before their guests even arrive. Estate agent Laurence is on the landline trying to appease his clients while Beverly is preoccupied with getting the right booze in. They are an obscenely ill-matched pair. She is crass, artificial, dripping with a faux sincerity that turns your insides over. He is all suppressed frustration, pedantry, and frazzled nerves.
The arrival of guests turns the up the temperature. Arguments over the artistic merits of Greek crooner Demis Roussos and the allure of olives play out over a backdrop of excessive drinking, pineapple-and-cheese sticks and music from neighbouring teenager Abigail’s party piercing the walls.
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The era is evoked so well that it's a pity it doesn’t entirely stretch to the revival of the script. Some of the subtleties and ambiguities that resonated in the original are absent here — particularly in the final moment, where the comedy proves to be more successfully reproduced than the tragedy.
But it is a faithful, spirited revival, where the tensions spill deliciously off the stage and into the aisles.