Abigail's Party, Hampstead Theatre, London

Leigh's pride and prejudice

Rhoda Koenig
Friday 07 February 2014 04:04
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Take several people who detest one another but who are unable to leave, add a sexual frisson, and what have you got? Yes, it's Big Brother, but also one of its progenitors, Abigail's Party.

As the television programme did when it began, Mike Leigh's comedy in 1977 exploited with a new intensity some of the less attractive English characteristics ­ the guilty love of bullying (the desire both to wield the rod and to kiss it) and the equation of taste with morality. In each case, the audience is not only encouraged but also aided to feel superior to what it peeks at through the fourth wall. When the Big Brother inmates boob, the tabloids point and sneer.

When Beverly, Leigh's monstrous hostess, shows off her possessions, even the dimmer members of the audience soon gather that they're supposed to laugh; the dimmest will be clued in by her mantra, "It was very expensive". To make things even easier this time, Jonathan Fensom's set is a catalogue of lowbrow horrors ­ the executive clicking-balls toy, the splotchy brown wallpaper, the electric fire where a pile of turd-like imitation coals are bathed in a lurid orange glow.

Will Beverly and her guests ­ "captives" would be a better term ­ still be considered as funny in this jubilee year as they were in the last? With the increase in pushy vulgarity, in real life as well as in the arts and entertainment, Beverly's behaviour is no longer shocking. Elizabeth Berrington's Beverly, angular and overemphatic, plucking at her screaming-green polyester when she mentions her new dress, is also far less believable than Alison Steadman, whose bovine stolidity was truer to the character's thuggishness. Time has also, I think, exposed the triteness of the others ­ Beverly's hag-ridden husband, Laurence; the idiotically sycophantic Angela; her wretched, depressed husband, Tony; and Sue, the upper-middle-class divorcee escaping her daughter Abigail's own party, and imprisoned by her genteel timidity as much as by Beverly.

Leigh gives us a few seconds of psychological insight ­ Beverly is visiting on Laurence her hatred of her father; Angela is re-enacting her parents' awful marriage. But this information is less important than the characters' lack of awareness of what they are revealing, and merely gives us more reason to despise them. Rosie Cavaliero, however, manages to lend Angela some touching vulnerability. Three years married, she is still so amazed to have a husband that she acknowledges him every other minute: "I've got four sisters ­ haven't I, Tony?"

The only action in Abigail's Party is repeated abuse, ended only by an incident that, like the entire play, seems like an exercise in an actors' workshop. But wouldn't actors now point out how the portrayal of the wives, who are supposed to disgust us, contrasts with that of the husbands, for whom we're supposed to feel only mild contempt and pity? In many ways we've moved on from Abigail's Party, but our appetite for unearned superiority has grown. Sniggering at Beverly's posturing is now too tame for the scourges of vulgarity, who can be found parading outside the Big Brother house with placards reading "Kill the pig".

To 14 September (020-7722 9301). A version of this review appeared in some editions of last Thursday's paper

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