Mike Leigh’s iconic and vivid drama driven here by outstanding acting

Abigail's Party by Mike Leigh SUS-170321-164520001
Abigail's Party by Mike Leigh SUS-170321-164520001
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If you remember 1977, you probably were actually there. Forty years on, at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, Abigail’s Party lurches back like a time machine to a crass suburban world of cocktail parties and Ford Cortinas. And it makes compelling theatre.

The danger with revivals, though, is that they just nod to the original, and go through the motions. Watch an Ayckbourn nowadays and, while the dialogue is still smart and the situations cleverly crafted, they can be dominated by the garish garb and the orange-and-green sets; but they sometimes struggle for the freshness that every production needs.

Janet Bird’s design is indeed immacuately faithful to 1970s suburbia. There are frequent murmurs of recognition from audience members of a certain age, as they spot the fibre-optic lights and the shag-pile carpet, watch the characters sway to the cheesy music and nibble compulsively at their cheese-and-pineapple.

Tension and conflict are so often the essence of drama, and this production brings vividly to life that tension between respectability and anarchy. That garish set is only painted on. Minute by minute, the actors allow the veneer to peel and flake away, revealing an underlife which we knew was there but were hoping not to confront.

Mike Leigh was always a collaborative writer and director. He developed the original 1977 production partly through workshop sessions, holding the scripts back and coaxing the actors to develop their own back-stories. So it should have been no surprise to this 2017 company to have had Leigh himself arriving in their rehearsal room to work with them along similar lines. With Sarah Esdale’s surprisingly subtle direction, it feels uncannily authentic.

The result is a set of actors who utterly convince, comfortable in their roles even when – as written – they might have edged precariously close to caricature. All five performances are astonishingly sharp, and almost intuitive in their grasp of character.

Hostess Beverley is the pivotal character. Alison Steadman – Leigh’s wife - may have made the original role her own, but on this evidence she has been usurped. Amanda Abbington is cringingly funny and alarmingly manipulative as the drinks party from Hell descends into chaos. If actors are supposed to establish character early, Amanda has hers nailed in the opening three minutes, wordless but priceless, while she dances shimmeringly to Demis Roussos and downs the first couple of gin and tonics.

There is, of course, tragedy beneath the veneer, and Amanda’s descent is mesmerising. You want to scream as well as laugh. Opposite her, Ben Caplan is a preposterous husband Laurence, full of posturing and always ready to explode. Charlotte Mills is hilariously gauche and garrulous as the new neighbour Susan, tugging along husband Tony – monosyllabic but with body language that speaks volumes.

Fifth of the five, and the only really sympathetic character, is divorcee Susan – taking refuge from daughter Abigail’s blaring teen party along the road. Beautifully hapless and undeserving of all this, Rose Keegan has the knack of understating while all around her are shouting: a superb characterisation.

Across the five characters, there is not a single relationship that isn’t dysfunctional – a word not even invented in the 1970s, but you know what I mean. There is menace, often unpleasant, in both the men; and in Beverley and Angela there is crass, cliched vulgarity. The denoument must remain unrevealed for those new to the play. But as audience, we sit helpless and almost disbelieving as the slow-motion car crash turns to wreckage.

This is far, far more than a simple revival. It is involving, vivid drama, driven by outstanding acting. Absolutely worth a spin in that time machine. By Kevin Anderson.