Park Theatre, London
Written by Mike Leigh
Directed by Vivienne Garnett
It is 44 years since Mike Leigh's Abigail’s Party premiered and what was then a cruelly incisive glimpse of England’s suburbia is now very much a period piece. Leigh’s creative scalpel was merciless in his exposition of social ambition, sexual inadequacies, and rat-race frustrations. Viewed through the prism of 2021, the play’s observations of domestic abuse and in particular Tony’s treatment of Angela his wife, are chilling. That the Park’s modern-day audience can laugh at some of Angela’s distress is even more worrying and offers an uncomfortable perspective on a part of today’s theatre-going audience as much as it does a comment on life in 1977.
Vivienne Garnett’s production is a carefully crafted drama and her company are an ensemble of perfectly weighted performances. Driving the piece is Kellie Shirley’s Beverley, perpetually disappointed by estate-agent husband Laurence (Ryan Early) and keen to impress her neighbours with her awkward and misplaced ostentatiousness. Shirley’s performance is a masterpiece of both under and overstatement, garishly dispensing gin and tonics yet smouldering with pent-up unsatisfied desire in the arms of a slow dance with Tony (Matt Di Angelo).
Emma Noakes’ Angela, albeit for differing reasons, is a performance as finely delivered as Shirley’s. A nurse by profession, Angela is a much belittled, humbled and humiliated woman. Not an easy part to portray but Noakes smashes it out of the park!
Early’s Laurence is a two-dimensional blustering popinjay but again, masterfully captured. Di Angelo’s ex-footballer Tony however is the menacing character whose underlying ugliness (hidden beneath a physique of muscular physicality) is only hinted at and about whom we want to know more. Completing the quintet is single-mum Susan, well delivered by Barbara D’Alterio, but whose role in the piece is little more than a foil to the complex dynamics that play out between the two married couples.
For those of us who lived the Seventies the cheese and pineapple cocktail sticks and Demis Roussos LPs are a blast from the past. For younger folk, they can gasp at the crap food and socially acceptable cigarettes that really were a sign of the times. Beth Colley’s set design is a garishly wonderful nod to an era that is thankfully many decades behind us.
At times a troubling play to watch and laugh at but above all, brilliantly performed. Another gem from the Park Theatre.
Runs until 4th December
Photo credit: Christian Davies