Abigail’s Party review – the original cringe comedy returns

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Mike Leigh’s comic masterpiece is as 70s as it gets – cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks, Demis Roussos on the record player, and neighbours boasting that they bought their house for £21,000. Still, given that we’ve all had to resocialise ourselves since the pandemic, it’s not a bad time to revisit one of the most awkward drinks evenings of all time – a play that groans with gauche behaviour and embarrassing silences, amid a fug of gin and cigarette smoke.

The titular party is, of course, the one happening next door; it’s the living room of the overbearing Beverly that we’re trapped in, as she and her husband Laurence (a wonderfully irascible Ryan Early) perform aggressive hospitality to their new neighbours Tony and Angela, (Matt Di Angelo and Emma Noakes). Beth Colley’s design, with its orange-and-brown patterned wallpaper, is as cartoonishly period as the characters’ dated gender roles: Bev henpecks her husband, flirts with Tone, gets drunk and gossipy with Ange, and patronises her poor nextdoor neighbour Susan (Barbara D’Alterio), who spends the whole night worried about what her teenage daughter Abigail is getting up to.

It is, arguably, the original cringe comedy, a precursor to the millennial sitcoms of Ricky Gervais, Larry David et al, with a humour that relies less on the written word than the almost physical tension its heightened realism can generate. But as the characters were essentially created by Leigh’s original actors (not to mention the fact that his TV play has left a deep imprint on our collective memory), it’s always a tough challenge for a cast to find their own incarnation.

Vivienne Garnett’s production gives us a hostess who’s trying too hard and lacks any shred of self-awareness, but Kellie Shirley’s Bev veers away from the XL personality that Alison Steadman crafted towards a more naturalistic portrayal, and the play lacks some frisson as a result. That said, the dancing scene is gloriously uncomfortable, Laurence looking on bug-eyed as his wife slow-dances with her friend’s husband. And if you’ve thought some of your Zoom calls were stilted, wait until you hear Ange desperately listing what you can cook on a barbecue.