It must be a daunting task taking on the role of Beverly that Alison Steadman made so iconic. I’ve never seen the BBC recording of Abigail’s Party (although I’ve been meaning to for some time) but even though I wasn’t born when Steadman played Beverly I still came to Lindsay Posner’s production with preconceptions, gleaned from descriptions and clips. Jill Halfpenny rises to the challenge, treading the fine line between comic exaggeration and total believability. Joe Absolom as surly Tony, whose mousey wife Angela (Natalie Casey) is in awe of Beverley, Andy Nyman as Beverly’s estate-agent husband Laurence and Susannah Harker as divorcee Susan are all excellent, but Halfpenny stands out as the force that gives the play its momentum.
The set is hideously ‘1970s’, and at the interval I overheard several people commenting on how they or their friends had had décor just like it. Yet the play could be transposed into any era, capturing as it does the timeless themes of social aspiration and anxiety as well as of marital strife. Each of the characters is a perfect portrayal of misery or dissatisfaction glossed over with a veneer of middle-class respectability.
The comedy is slick and perfectly judged, much as I would expect from Posner after his superb revival of Noises Off at the Old Vic. The culmination of an increasingly tense and dramatic build-up, the play’s climax is still shocking – yet the cast manage to maintain the comedy right through until the end. As the alcohol flows and tempers rise the action becomes increasingly fraught; Beverly’s continual baiting of her husband throughout the night draws a dramatic reaction, while Tony’s dominance over wife Angela escalates. The final minutes of the play draw superb performances from the cast, in particular Halfpenny, and are totally riveting. Thirty five years on, Abigail’s Party is as good as ever.