Abigail's Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Friday 09 March 2012
"Tone? A little cheesy-pineapple
one?": yes, it's that bag again. This time, she comes in the
slim-line, lime-green-gowned form of Jill Halfpenny in Lindsay Posner's
vibrant, splendidly cast revival of Abigail's Party.
Since the fabled
1977 television version, Mike Leigh's stage play has pitched, erm, camp as a
classic of excruciatingly comic social embarrassment. It's a case of Who's Afraid of Beverly Moss? (not just in the "get the guests"
format, but in the preoccupation with having and not having children). In
some quarters, you would scarcely count as gay if you hadn't impersonated this
department store make-up exec. Alison Steadman's iconic original
performance -- Alan Bennett memorably described her Beverly as a "brutal
hostess with shoulders like a lifeguard and a walk to match -- created the drag
Posner's production will delight the fans, while also offering invigoratingly fresh new sidelights on characterisation and on questions such as to what degree this play is inviting the condescending laughter of the social secure on the aspirational lower-middle and working classes. Blessed with the kind of the figure that would let her play Elvira, the ghost in Blithe Spirit, Halfpenny pins down with hilarious precision the infallibly undermining supportiveness of Beverly who bullies her way to democratic majorities and to her draconian notion of female solidarity. But whereas Steadman's Beverly seemed like this by second nature, you are more aware here of how the control freakery is compensation for a marriage that failed because they had a trial run and how the smoochily-dancing predatoriness masks the squeamishness about bodily functions that she has decided rules her out as a mother.
By intriguing coincidence, there's another play on at the moment, set in the 1970s and dealing with unlovely male attitudes to women and gifted with a set that is a shrine to the hideous idea of domestic taste in the period. But Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends strikes me as strenuously (and slightly self-regardingly) feminist by comparison with Leigh's play which takes huge, calculated risks in being misconstrued as heartless and patronising about the class-conflicted characters whose idiosyncrasies are here revelled in unwitheringly by Susannah Harker, Nathalie Casey and Joe Absolom.
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