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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Menier Chocolate Factory


  Jill Halfpenny and Joe Absolom/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

The 1970s are back. Flared trousers, wide-collar shirts and wallpaper with chunky designs are all the rage on the London stage. While the West End's Harold Pinter Theatre hosts Alan Ayckbourn's excruciating comedy Absent Friends, the Menier Chocolate Factory has revived Mike Leigh's savagely funny Abigail's Party. Those too young to remember the era will enjoy a dose of retro chic; those old enough will lap up the nostalgia of naff. But all will leave the theatres at least a little shell-shocked by the savagery of these plays by two of the keenest and most cutting observers of suburban English reserve. 

The works are remarkably similar. Both unfold over a drinks party in real time, and each is set in a mid-1970s living room, allowing modern designers to wallow in period kitsch. For Lindsay Posner's production of Abigail's Party, Mike Britton's set is a sea of orange wallpaper and a landscape of G Plan furniture. And there are yet more parallels. Each play is populated by two and a half couples. In Ayckbourn's, the off-stage spouse is ill and housebound. In Leigh's the husband of single mother Susan (Susannah Harker) has left her for another woman, leaving Susan to look after the unseen 15-year-old Abigail, whose party can be heard blaring down the road.

But the core relationship in the play (first seen in 1977, three years after Absent Friends first appeared) is that of our hosts, workaholic estate agent Laurence and his flirtatious, sexually frustrated wife Beverly. Beverly is the role for which Alison Steadman is still famous. Six months after the play's premiere at the Hampstead Theatre in 1977, the BBC version was transmitted into millions of British living rooms not dissimilar to that of Beverly and Laurence's.

No doubt many viewers recognised not only the furniture, but the marriages, too. Early exchanges between Beverly and Laurence are conducted through gritted teeth. And the tension also forces cracks to appear in the marriage of their well-mannered guests Tony and Angela. Open hostilities break out when Beverly dances provocatively with Tony, an act of cuckolding humiliation for Laurence. This is the kind of savagery that rarely breaks through the veneer of suburban civility, which is why it continues to fascinate. At one point Laurence (played by a coiled Andy Nyman) brandishes a knife; at another, Tony (a simmering Joe Absolom) raises a fist.

But it is the portrayal of Beverly that inevitable counts most. Stepping into Steadman's platform shoes, and a green cocktail dress of purest rayon, is a terrific Jill Halfpenny, who can turn vulgarity into a turn-on. This is a faultless production by Posner, one of our most dependable directors, who recently delivered a pitch perfect revival of Frayn's fiendishly complicated Noises Off at the Old Vic. And like that show he displays a mastery of gathering pace that reaches a furious climax without ever becoming shrill. The only question is whether this production will end up as one of the Menier's many transfers – that and whether there is room in the West End for two near-identical plays that each reveal the cracks beneath the chunky wallpaper. 


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