The first thing that strikes you when first walking into the auditorium for Abigail’s Party is the feeling of stepping back in time. That’s not unusual in Oxford, but rarely are we confronted with such a perfect relic of 70s kitsch. The middle-class living room (designed by Mike Britton) has browns, oranges and leather galore, and it’s so beautiful that I almost wouldn’t hate to live there. Once the characters appear (wielding cheese and pineapple on sticks, of course), this retro feeling is cemented: not only are the costumes and hair incomprehensibly perfect, but the actors even manage to sound like they’re from the 70s.
The play revolves around two couples: Beverly and Laurence (played by the luxuriating Hannah Waterman and a wonderfully try-hard Martin Marquez), hosting a small gathering for their neighbours, Angela and Tony (a seemingly ditzy and naive Katie Lightfoot and morose Samuel James). Added to the proceedings is the prudish divorcée, Susan (Emily Raymond), a local resident whose fifteen-year-old daughter – the eponymous Abigail – is having her first house party. Class is a persistent issue here, with Laurence looking disparagingly on the calibre of his new neighbours, and the newly ‘permissive society’ often being derided – along with Women’s Lib. But, given the situation, there is only the bare minimum of interaction with these themes. As Beverly says, “We’re not here to have conversations, Laurence, we’re here to enjoy ourselves!”.
An edifying play, then, this certainly is not; but it’s very entertaining. Given Mike Leigh’s usual style of ‘bleak’ (his last play was called Grief), Abigail’s Party is unexpectedly funny. Under Tom Attenborough’s smart direction, Leigh’s usual torturous silences become the zenith of hilarious social awkwardness, and the inane small-talk (“Have you always had a moustache?”) is painfully familiar. There are some truly brilliant performances in this production: one highlight being Lightfoot, whose portrayal of Angela is a paradoxical but compelling blend of knowingness and ignorance. She recognises the problems in her relationship, yet continues nodding her head to Elvis, blissfully unaware that Beverly is “mauling [her] husband” with an especially provocative dance. Raymond’s prim depiction of Susan is perfectly as odds with the increasing debauchery which grows up around her. The men don’t get much to say in this production, aside from brief competitions about jobs, cars, smoking habits and other ‘masculine pursuits’.
This, though, is perhaps where the writing is at its weakest: the characters are often slightly stereotyped and the dynamics well-worn. Laurence, for instance, desires only intellectual conversation and engaging company, but finds himself married to a sex-crazed bimbo. Of course, it’s a product of its time, but some of the lines nevertheless leave a slightly bitter taste of misogyny in the mouth. The problem of caricaturing is highlighted at the end of the production, which should be tragic, but fails, due to Attenborough’s direction for potentially poignant moments to be played for laughs. In the end, we really sympathise with no-one, and – while this may be the point – the ending would have been all the more effective with just a little pathos.
Abigail’s Party is undeniably hilarious production throughout, but fails to take us on much of an emotional journey. If it had, it would have been perfect; as it was, we were left feeling ever-so slightly unsatisfied.