TWENTY years ago or so I was on assignment in Bucharest with a cameraman and we went to dinner with
TWENTY years ago or so I was on assignment in Bucharest with a cameraman and we went to dinner with some locals. The discussion was about life and death matters, like the future of Romania without communism, where they would get their food and so on... bear with me, this will be about Abigail’s Party.
Afterwards my cameraman — not a worldly man despite where we were — said to me: “That was interesting, much better than talking about curtains, which is what we do at dinner parties at home.”
There, in a nutshell, is the target Mike Leigh was aiming at with Abigail’s Party, and this latest revival at the Oxford Playhouse hits it smack in the middle. It comes from a successful run in the West End which explains why it is so settled and sharp.
Hannah Waterman as the impossible Beverly — a role made immortal in the TV version by Alison Steadman — wrings every meaning and nuance from a gift of a part. She is the most Beverly-like Beverly I’ve seen. She’s aggressive, oblivious, impervious, lustful and ignorant; there isn’t a single facet of her that anyone could like. Even her appearance, which should be appealing, is off-putting. The other characters dance to Beverly’s tune — literally in one particular scene — and are wholly convincing.
The play is set in what was suburbia, a housing estate where the lower middle classes learn some of the terminology of culture, but none of its meaning. There are rows of Dickens novels on the bookshelf, revered not for their content but their gold-embossed covers. Beethoven sits on the record shelf unplayed, while Demis Roussos provides the soundtrack.
Abigail’sParty is about a drinks night in the living room of an estate house. Next door, a wild bash is going on for teenagers — hosted by Abigail — but it is as nothing compared to the lusting, drinking and yearning in that living room.
The play was first conceived in 1977 and carries the stamp of that era. But it’s travelled well through the decades because its themes of competitiveness, betrayal, boredom and pretension remain with us, even if the clothes and vinyl have changed and we no longer put Beaujolais Nouveau in the fridge. It is very, very funny, and if this newspaper had a star rating system I would award it five.
le_SHrSAbigail’s Party runs until Saturday, February 2. Box office: 01865 305305 or www.oxfordplayhouse.com