Sunday, December 5, 2021

Abigail’s party at the Park Theater is little more than a lovingly recreated historical play

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Vivienne Garnett’s production introduces a minor makeover, but the hideous wallpaper and bickering of the suburbs are still present in Mike Leigh’s classic ’70s tragic comedy

Mike Leigh’s tragic comedy of manners, set in the burgeoning suburb of the Seventies, is so nostalgic that it’s easy to forget how spicy it is. The hideous furnishings, the pieces of cheese and pineapple, Demis Roussos seeping out of the hi-fi speakers – it can easily come across as a harmless retro joke. There is also a touch of snobbery: we are encouraged not only to laugh but also to mock the gauche, the pretentious Beverly, the hostess from Hell.

But despite everything, the play, which premiered in 1977 at the Hampstead Theater and immortalized in the TV series Play For Today that same year, still retains a bit of pizzazz. The characters developed by the cast, led by Alison Steadman with Leigh, originally bordered on the grotesque, and it’s now difficult to separate them from their small-screen incarnations.

This Vivienne Garnett revival mutes them a bit and offers some fruitful new accents. But although the rivalry about house prices, class differences, and petty nimbyism still seem depressingly relevant, it remains a lovingly recreated piece of time.

Beth Colley’s set features migraine-inducing brown and orange wallpapers; as Beverly, Kellie Shirley (EastEnders’ Carly Wicks), in a tangerine-colored dress, matches the leather suit. She’s softer than Steadman’s great monster, though she has her wobbly, stiff shoulders and a touch of her sing-song imagination. She never leans enough on Beverly’s malice and selfishness, which rob the dark climax of some of its hideous potency.

Ryan Early steams and stutters as her stressed-out estate agent husband Laurence – but if their marriage is miserable, it’s no worse here than neighbors Angela (Emma Noakes) and Tony (Matt Di Angelo). In the most radical reinterpretation of the production, Noakes makes Ange brittle and dejected. The tension between her and Di Angelo’s taciturn tone, with whom Beverly flirts shamelessly, dissolves into grim sniper screams, and the sharp looks she throws at him make it clear that Angela doesn’t trust her husband an inch.

Barbara D’Alterio as divorced Sue – whose 15-year-old daughter Abigail is throwing the title party – shudders and rolls discreetly through the evening, desperately looking for a way to escape.

Sometimes both angry men in Leigh’s TV version seem to be on the verge of violence, a blatant and sobering threat that is missing here. Garnett’s production, however, is hopelessly sad at times, her life empty, disappointed and limited. That might not make this quite as giggling as you remember, but that’s a good thing – a pinch of bitterness in a production that pauses well before re-evaluation or reinvention.

Until December 4th (020 7870 6876)

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