There is something of a 1970s invasion of the London stage at present. Hot on the heels of Absent Friends comes this cracking revival of Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh’s savagely funny depiction of a ghastly suburban soirée. Again, the set design (Mike Britton) is spot-on: a living room struggling under the weight of conflicting tangerine-and-tan geometric designs; dismal spider-plants; macramé fittings. And again the occasion is a misguided social gathering, which gradually unravels leaving the assembled parties surveying the ruins of their relationships.
But Leigh’s 1977 play is even more acid, and Lindsay Posner’s staging reveals that behind the cruel comedy is an aching sense of marital misery and an astute portrait of a society in flux. We are at Beverly’s party, grimacing as she sashays round the room dispensing little top-ups and inflicting Demis Roussos on the guests. We wince as she bullies husband Laurence, who has more highbrow cultural aspirations and flaunts his bound set of Dickens to middle-class guest Sue. It’s a priceless study of class snobbery, as Sue surveys with polite disdain the brash behaviour of nouveau-riche Beverly, and she, in turn, is condescendingly sweet to working-class guest Angela. But every now and then we hear a blast of punk-rock from the unrulier gathering that Sue’s teenage daughter, Abigail, is holding up the road. This is Abigail’s party, the title of the play and the harbinger of the coming generational shift.
We, though, are trapped with Beverly for an excruciating evening of marital and social hostilities. Posner’s cast navigates this superbly and pays tribute to the 1977 television film led by Alison Steadman, without parodying it. Jill Halfpenny is excellent as Beverly. Acidly sweet, grotesquely self-centred, she is far too glossily attired for a drinks party in Essex. But Halfpenny also lets you see the desperation behind the bullying.
Andy Nyman is first-rate too as her estate agent husband, smiling through gritted teeth as Beverly wraps herself round Angela’s husband (played by Joe Absolom as a taciturn bully). Susannah Harker’s Sue sits wearing the wan smile of a visiting dignitary and Natalie Casey’s gauche Angela suddenly reveals her strength when the play shifts into tragedy at the end. It’s overwrought in places, but otherwise this is a painfully good revival that makes you laugh, then wish you hadn’t.