An invitation to the most awkward and hysterical party in town should be accepted with caution. Sitting in the intimate Ensemble Theatre, you feel as if you are part of the action, and half expect the overbearing hostess to offer you a drink and a cheese cube. Be thankful she doesn't.
Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party is set in a 1970s living room, complete with a fibre optic lamp, white shag carpeting and bright patterned wallpaper. Beverly (Queenie Van de Zandt), a middle-aged, would-be middle-class housewife, is setting out finger food, fussing with the bright orange pillows on the leather couch and getting an early start on the night with the first of many gin and tonics. Her control-freak inclinations are confirmed when her husband Laurence (Brian Meegan) walks in the door and she starts nagging him to get ready and pick up the beers he forgot from the bottle-o.
Bubbly Angela (Tara Morice) arrives with her leather-jacket wearing husband Tony (Ben Ager), at whom Beverly immediately and openly throws herself. Susan (Julie Hudspeth), the nervous mother from down the street, joins the soiree because her teenage daughter Abigail is holding a party at which mothers are not welcome. After everyone has been offered a drink (or two, or three), they all sit down and the first of many skilfully played awkward silences ensues.
After this rocky beginning, Beverly only gets worse, offering condescending advice to Susan about her recent divorce. Her preferred angle for looking at the world and everyone in it is down her nose, and things get increasingly uncomfortable for all her guests except Angela, who's too naive to notice even when Beverly is shamelessly hitting on her husband. After one too many gin and tonics, the night descends into a riot of vomiting, screaming and violence, to the heavy bass background of Abigail's party down the street.
Famous for movies such as Secrets & Lies and Happy Go Lucky, Mike Leigh creates characters by working with actors. The original 1977 London cast of Abigail's Party helped devise their characters' back-stories, adding pieces of themselves wherever they could, before coming together to improvise scenes. More than a play, Leigh's work is a social experiment, tossing together people, seeing what unfolds and presenting the result to the audience - in this instance, a portrait of 1970s suburbia as a gladitorial arena, dominated by the rampaging Beverly.
Mark Kilmurry's production adapts the action to a local setting, and demonstrates that Australia in the 70s was not the classless society we like to imagine. If parties should be fun, why is everyone so miserable? If hostesses should be attentive, why does Beverley's offer for drinks come off as pushy and mean? Status anxiety in its rawest, most brutal form comes to life in a satire that still bites some 30 years since it appeared. Jacqueline Klimas