Writer: Mike Leigh
Designer: Janet Bird
Director: Sarah Esdaile
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
Mike Leigh’s classic piece of retro social satire made a star of its original lead actress and remains one of the writer-director’s best known and most recognised works. So ingrained are its late-seventies social symbols and pop culture references that it’s all but impossible to remember that these features would have been far from retro when it was first staged.
More than forty years after we first heard hostess-turned-tyrant Beverly’s invitations to enjoy a cheesy pineapple one, alongside a burst of Demis Roussos, delivered with enough elongated vowels to stun the entire cast of The Only Way is Essex, it can be hard to penetrate the fumes of Estee Lauder Youth Dew to the emotional subtleties lurking beneath the surface.
As such, the play hasn’t aged as well as its broad premise, that the modern suburb functions as another of Dante’s circles of Hell, where good taste, humanity, decency and integrity go to die long, gin-soaked deaths.
Famously, the party we witness isn’t the party of the title – Abigail is the unseen teen whose mother Sue (Rose Keegan) is invited to the home of Beverly (Jodie Prenger) and Laurence (Daniel Casey) along with new neighbours Angela (Vicky Binns) and Tony (Calum Callaghan). Gin is poured, peanuts are distributed, Demis Roussos is played. Things end badly.
Along the way modern relationships are picked apart, and here the dysfunctions of these mis-matched couples are as tragically funny as ever. Prenger brings her own energy to the role created by Alison Steadman, craftily deploying a widened eye, dropped voice or a shoulder shake to her put-downs and dismissals, showcasing the full, unrestrained horror of a suburban housewife whose life lacks stimulation, purpose or meaning.
Callaghan as the simmering pot of rage that is computer technician Tony pitches his sullen violence perfectly, a monster nurtured and bred alongside his own wife’s relentless enthusiasm for life. Binns, as Angela, has all the wide-eyed admiration and total lack of awareness of the prey to Beverly’s predator, combining a notable lack of empathy and enough simpering venom to suggest the harridan hidden beneath the lipstick and woollen tights.
As Beverly’s husband Laurence, Casey has a remarkable restraint and even temper in the first act, which tips catastrophically into frustrated rage in the second half – but it’s not entirely clear what specifically leads to the meltdown we observe, although it may be linked to the horrors observed (or inflicted) at Abigail’s party, off stage. And there’s a little too much of the mannered simpering from Keenan’s Sue – it feels wrong for her to be played as completely the victim as she is here, when it would be more dramatically interesting (and psychologically authentic) to examine her spinelessness as her own tool of societal tyranny.
But perhaps the mistake is to assume that Leigh’s text seeks a kind of social realism. It’s far too humorous and scathing about the forces that draw (and repel) people for that. The self-destructive entanglement between the couples evokes Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but without the same consistency of bite.
Leigh’s study of disintegration is more of a short, sharp shock to the system of human relations, without offering much in the way of redemption along the way.
Runs until 20 April 2019 | Image: Contributed