‘We are not here to hold conversations, we are here to have fun’. A statement uttered by the irrepressible Beverly Moss and one that resonates throughout Mike Leigh’s infamously dark cringe comedy Abigail’s Party. Beverly (Katharine Bennett-Fox) and Laurence Moss (Duncan MacInnes) are hosting a welcoming party for their new neighbours. There are some classic tunes on the vinyl player, mandatory party food on cocktail sticks and a group of people who are desperately trying to keep up the façade of happiness and contentment. Leigh scrutinises the habitual patterns of wannabe social climbers and lifts the veil on the not so subtle flaws in their relationships and their dangerous over reliance on alcohol.
Amanda Huxtable’s decision to stage this play here and now is smartly observed. It might be set in the 70’s, but Leigh’s wry observation of class conflicts and human habits feels just as relevant as ever. And this relevance is supported by Emma William’s almost timeless design, a living room that could exist just as easily in our modern day hipster-styled culture as back then. The crisp and clean projections at the back of the classy set add a further sense of modernity and at times you will be forgiven for forgetting that the play is not contemporary.
The ensemble cast do a spectacular job of bringing each of their unstable characters to life and under Huxtable’s razor sharp direction they avoid simply playing the script for comedy and find the disturbing neurosis lying just beneath the surface. There is a sick joy to be had in observing the subtlest twinge of the face or sharp head turn as each partygoer tries to hide behind the lies they tell to attempt to hide their various insecurities as they pour yet another drink.
Katharine Bennett-Fox steals the show as Beverly and is as spellbinding as she is heart-breaking. She controls the action with simple yet mesmeric hand waves and cheers-ing and flaunts herself like the movie star she desperately wishes that she could be. Hers is a figure of great despair and Bennett-Fox masterfully finds the humanity in Beverly’s monstrous actions.
Huxtable’s production offers a new insight into this well-worn play through the casting of black actors Ani Nelson and Daniel Ward as new neighbours Angela and Tony. Later in the play Laurence’s delicate façade slips and the seemingly affable, dad-dancing gentleman displays the true monster underneath. His outburst about the unpleasant changes in his local community suddenly becomes a sinister racial criticism aimed directly at Angela and Tony. The mood shifts uncomfortably and from then until its tremendous climax, Huxtable transforms this middle class comedy into a towering tragedy that is heartbreakingly exemplified by Beverley’s silent scream in the closing tableau.
Abigail’s Party is a production that is as hilarious as it is horrifying. It exposes deep-seated discomforts and resentments that are shamefully recognisable in a modern society that seems to have learned very little since the premiere of the play all those years ago.