Dark cringe comedy of manners ‘Abigail’s Party’ at the New Vic theatre

It was 1977, the year of skin-tight polyester, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and Saturday Night Fever. The Sex Pistols were storming up the charts, skateboarding was the latest craze and Angela Rippon danced with Morecambe & Wise.

Back in the 70s, it was all about ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ – and this week at Newcastle’s New Vic, Abigail’s Party takes a microscope to the nuances of the British class system and the way it affects people’s behaviour and aspirations.

Mike Leigh’s story sees Beverly in a slinky orange maxi dress and gold waist belt dancing around her quintessentially seventies living room, complete with a leather chesterfield, tiles and furniture in 50 shades of toffee.

Sheila Burnett

The wife is readying her suburban lounge for a gathering, as she and her husband, Laurence, are set to play host to their Richmond Street neighbours, Sue from number 9, as well as Angela and her husband Tony from across the street.

Two doors down, Sue’s teenage daughter, Abigail, is having a party, and you can hear the music blaring through the row of houses – but the grown ups, I use the term lightly, are trying their best to indulge enjoy themselves.

However, as the gin and tonics flow and the pineapple and cheese cocktail sticks are handed around, Leigh’s ruthless but achingly funny examination of 1970s British life begins.

Set entirely in Bev and Laurence’s living room, the audience immediately becomes a fly on the wall of their home as we are introduced to each of the five characters.

Beverly, played by Rebecca Birch, is our overbearing hostess, humble bragging about her home, her sofa, her kitchen and always ensuring that everyone’s glass is topped up – even Sue’s, who is nervous about the goings on at her daughter’s party, with Jo Castleton portraying the perfectly polite guest, accepting G&Ts, cigarettes and as many nuts, crisps and cocktail sticks as she can carry.

Sheila Burnett

Alice De-Warrenne’s Angela is a bit dizzy, with a comical whine to her voice – chatty and enthusiastic, she looks up to Beverly who appears to be asserting her status over interior choices, music tastes and her array of bar spirits in a perfectly organised drinks cabinet. Ange takes it all in from an aspirational perspective, working hard to be liked by her new neighbour.

Her husband, Tony, played by George Readshaw, is a man of few words, the odd ‘yes’ and ‘ta’, unlike Tom Richardson’s Laurence – an estate agent – who tries his best to entertain his guests, but is relentlessly patronised by Bev, who is desperate to impress Tony, who really just wants Ange to be quite while Sue just wants to go home. 

But it’s between the embarrassing silences, strained politeness and fragile marriages where people are desperate to keep up appearances that you catch a glimpse behind the masks at the dated gender roles and true colours – Tony’s temper and Beverly’s desperation, to name a few.

The dark cringe comedy acts out one of the most awkward neighbourly gatherings of all time, so much so you can’t help but suffer from secondhand embarrassment as emotions heighten and utter chaos begins to unfold. 

Sheila Burnett

Each member of the cast plays their part superbly, their peculiar habits and traits a fuel for comedic moments, one of my favourite having been when Laurence comes rushing in, and straight back out having forgotten the light ales, or when he and Ange have a ‘dance’ together to the record player.

As Abigail’s party gets rowdier, the quintet gets more intoxicated and loose-lipped, inhibitions long gone and niceties out of the window, all building to a dramatic final scene that will leave viewers wide-eyed having half forgotten how to breathe.

Sheila Burnett

The parallels between the 70s and the new 20s are not at all lost on the audience, either. Under the direction of Michael Cabot, Abigail’s Party begs the question – have things really changed all that much in nearly 50 years? Or have they actually intensified with the grip of social media and the rise in celebrity culture – people just as obsessed with keeping up appearances as they are with the Kardashian’s.

Abigail’s Party is a true comedy of manners and forced politeness, making for a wonderful mix of acute social observation and laugh-out-loud awkwardness. Throw in an Elvis record, some period interiors and seventies fashion, and you’ve a recipe for a rather successful disaster you’ll most definitely want to witness.

Abigail’s Party is at The New Vic, in Newcastle, until Saturday, April 15, with tickets available from £20.

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Sheila Burnett

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