By Katrina ffiske.

Arriving at Salisbury Playhouse for Abigail’s Party was strangely comforting but also cringe-inducing. Lee Newby’s set instantly transported us to that strange era, the 70s: brown bookcases, beige and cream flock wallpaper, shag pile rug, lava lamps and tan leather three-piece suite. We all sat back and waited for the party to begin.

Mike Leigh’s play hit the TV screens as a Play for Today in 1977. It was a masterpiece of situation comedy then and has lasted well into the 20th Century.  As the director Douglas Rintoul summed up the play in the programme: “Welcome to Mike Leigh’s world of Cheesy-pineapple-ones, Demis Roussos, leather-bound Shakespeare, Ford Capris, footballers legs, pilchard curry, wet shirts and vomiting neighbours.” Welcome to 70s Essex suburbia.

Amy Downham and Melanie Gutteridge. Photo by Mark Sepple.

Upwardly-mobile couple Beverly and Laurence invite new neighbours, Angela, a nurse, and Tony, a former footballer, for a drink. They live “in a smaller house,” as Beverly points out and although they have fitted carpets, Angela is envious about everything that Beverly has.

The main reason for the drink is middle-class, divorcee Susan, needs to vacate her house as her 15-year-old daughter, Abigail, is hosting her own raucous party next door. Abigail is never seen but her spirit as the wild, teenager is always present. Beverly comments on Abigail’s jeans having safety pins all down one leg: punk rock is just around the corner.

Interviewing Melanie Gutteridge, while she was on tour, she admitted that following in the footsteps of Alison Steadman – infamous as Beverly in the original production – was a daunting experience. “I started with a blank canvas,” Melanie said. “When I started rehearsing, I read the words out loud to myself and ended up with a different Beverly: she does not dominate so much.”

Melanie really has taken on the character and created her own, calmer, slightly more devious Beverly, holding the four characters together throughout the performance with her endless top-ups of cocktails, creating a warm, inviting but very uncomfortable party atmosphere.

There is tension from the very beginning, as brash and sexy Beverly, Melanie Gutteridge, orders her weedy estate agent husband, Laurence – Christopher Staines – around. He works away keeping Beverly in the style to which she is accustomed, but she aspires to greater things. Angela longs to be like Beverly and Tony wants to be…somewhere else.

Melanie Gutteridge. Photo by Mark Sepple.

We watch as tensions rise, the characters slowly descend into their true characters: many awkward silent moments. Peanuts are handed round, glasses filled and music played.  It’s funny but awkward viewing.

I confess there was a moment when I felt tired of watching couples bickering. We seem to watch so many couples squabbling in the soaps and dramas on TV these days, but after reminding myself this was written for audiences in the 70s you realise how clever the script is.

Amy Downham’s Angela is excellent. Amy plays a wonderfully naïve, desperate neighbour wanting to please her new friend Beverly. We laugh at her, not with her, and her subservience to her husband is painful in these #MeToo days. The endless over-excited chit chat merely makes her husband’s role, played by Liam Bergin (EastEnders),  more irritable and monosyllabic.

Susie Emmett plays the awkward Susan with perfect curt responses. We can feel the desperation she has of not wanting to be sat on Beverly’s sofa, but equally cannot return to her house full of teenagers.

With Rintoul’s creative direction, each of the five characters expertly descend into quibbling, flirtation and bickering. A civilised situation starts descending and ends in chaos, with No Future (God Save The Queen), by the Sex Pistols booming across the theatre.

Abigail’s Party is at Salisbury Playhouse until  November 17.

Featured image: Amy Downham (left), Melanie Gutteridge, Liam Bergin & Susie Emmett. Photo by Mark Sepple.

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