Sinister undertones provide the theme for their intoxicating, cringe-inducing evening
Mike Leigh’s iconic comedy, Abigail’s Party, delivers a script brimming with guaranteed laughs but can offer more to a cast than easy chortles and a final shocked gasp. The Drama Barn’s production team has certainly taken the bait. The vinyl might keep changing but sinister undertones provide the theme for their intoxicating, cringe-inducing evening. In short, don’t grab that cheese and pineapple stick too hastily; you might choke laughing.
With every awful silence, and there are many, the gin and tonics are replenished and violence bubbles closer to the surface
It is the 1970s. Young Abigail is throwing a party but Leigh has chosen to shift focus. His satirical lens settles on the neighbours. Excluded from the youthful revelry, we spend the night in Beverly and Laurence’s nearby home where Abigail’s single mother, Sue, and unhappy couple, Tony and Angela, gather to the waterhole: a bottomless drinks cabinet. With every awful silence, and there are many, the gin and tonics are replenished and violence bubbles closer to the surface. Only laughter can help alleviate this tension and the Drama Barn’s production bombards its audience with clichés and sarcasm so irrefutably funny the whole barn shakes.
Beverly (Daisy Hale) introduces us to her suitably ghastly brown and burnt orange living room with a silent sway and the quiet clink of a preparatory drink or two. Commendations to the costume designer; Beverly’s dress takes ‘precarious’ to its threshold and reveals the tentative line between seduction and hilarity along which her character will later dance. Alison Steadman’s influence (Beverly in the original 1977 television production) is evident in Hale’s performance but she does not depend on the memorably high-pitched “Okaaaay?” to carry her through. Conspiring glances solicit audience participation and her clicking fingers later provide percussion for our booming laughter as we watch her snake around a husband, not her own, with Demis Roussos warbling in the background.
It is with Laurence’s (Joseph D’angelo) arrival that the cocktail of insults and forced conversation begins. D’angelo’s fantastically enraged lisp and abrupt movements suit the uptight character and hint towards later explosions of anger. These are handled well. The use of vignettes throw sharp focus on barely contained violence, which has us frequently gulping back laughter. A joke about a sandwich loses its humour when transformed into the eerily still image of Laurence, knife at Beverly’s throat, and Angela (Rose Burston) giggling uncomfortably behind them. This giggling guest sits at the heart of the production’s comedy. Positioned centre stage Burston bounces eagerly on the leather sofa (or is it “leather-look”?) and fills silences with insipid conversation that is endearingly sincere. Blinking, goldfish-like, behind giant glasses she encroaches on the superbly nervous Sue (Maya Ellis) and asks a barrage of inappropriate questions with the drawling tone that is evidently driving her quiet husband Tony (Ross Telfer) mad.
The Drama Barn has tackled this play with true verve. Few mistakes were made and most were covered well or used to help the awkwardness fester. I only wish Mike Leigh’s passion for improvisation could have been fulfilled following the moment when a piece of wallpaper fell. This presented an unexpected opportunity for adhoc humour that was unfortunately neglected. Nevertheless, this is a challenging play, in which darker aspects risk being overwhelmed by overt humour, and the production is well balanced overall. This is a performance infused with a brutality that breaks through the audience’s happy roar long before the final scene. It lingers in the mind with the potency of Laurence’s tobacco smoke and the bitter cocktail of comedy and violent unhappiness is one I will not forget.