Last night I stepped back into my childhood when I walked into The Lowry’s Lyric Theatre with my mum to watch Abigail’s Party, which has been revived 36 years after Mike Leigh’s play was first performed.

I’m not saying that I lived in suburban Essex, I was 200 miles north, but the set brought back loads of memories for me. There was the collection of vinyl records, the drinks cabinet, a macramé plant holder, the orange and brown wallpaper, the telephone, cheese and pineapples on sticks. The set felt very authentic and of its age.

Abigail’s Party is a master-class in subversive, suburban dark humour that gently pokes fun at the aspirational working classes. For me, Beverly’s role is synonymous with Alison Steadman, who was Leigh’s wife at the time.

Hannah Waterman brings her own edge to the role of Beverly, who’s essentially an unhappily married bully beneath all the inane small talk. As the gin and tonics are liberally dispensed, the cracks are revealed in the two couples’ marriages.

Beverly’s so ignorant that she can’t pronounce Beaujolais properly and puts the red wine in the fridge. Yet Mike Leigh doesn’t humiliate her, he gently pokes fun at her aspirations and obvious materialism.

Nurse Angela (Katie Lightfoot) is squeaky voiced and naïve and oblivious to her husband Tony’s (Samuel James) flirtation and lack of interest in her. She can’t dance, either. Her dancing is so outrageously awful it reminded me of Ricky Gervais’s manic dance in The Office and led to uproarious laughter from the audience.

Beverly flirts outrageously with Tony, dancing with him and hitching up her low-cut long green dress as he watches her across the living room. Poor Sue, a middle-class neighbour – played by Emily Raymond – whose teenage daughter Abigail is having a party, is forced to watch the proceedings.

There’s a dark underbelly to the small talk. Beverly’s husband Laurence (formed Bill actor Martin Marquez) holds a knife to her throat as they argue about music and her appalling taste in music. The guests attempt to leave as the row escalates, but they are prevented from doing so by the overbearing Beverly. Tensions emerge between Laurence and Tony.

Sue gets ill from too much gin on an empty stomach and is sick in the downstairs toilet. Beverly sprays a cloud of Estee Lauder perfume in her face to “freshen her up” and tries to force feed her black coffee as well as making her have a cigarette.

Later, Laurence perks up when he talks to Sue about art, music and Paris. Yet his conversation is cut short at the end of the play by Beverly.

My mum nudged me at one point to tell me: “I had a dish like that.” The soporific effect of the scenery was taking us both back to the 1970s. And the cigarette smoke drifted in to the auditorium along with the pungent whiff of Estee Lauder’s ‘Youth Dew’, which was apparently well-liked in the 1970s.

Abigail’s Party was created at the Hampstead Theatre, a venue noted for its originality and innovation. The play was an immediate stage hit and was snapped up by the BBC for its Play for Today series, debuting in November 1977. The British Film Institute describes it as “perhaps the most celebrated TV play of the 1970s”.

Unfortunately, a bit of the scenery fell down towards the end of the play. I felt sorry for the actors who had to step over the black cable as they exited the stage and re-entered for the curtain call. It was a tiny glitch in an otherwise top notch performance.

Review by Helen Carter


What: Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh

Where: The Lowry Theatre, Salford

When: Until May 4, 2013