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REVIEW: Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh at Cambridge Arts Theatre.

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Launched in 1977 as a Play for Today on BBC Television, Abigail’s Party – an evening where two married couples get drunk and reveal their secrets – truly brought director Mike Leigh and his then wife, Alison Steadman to the nation’s attention.

They were taken to our hearts and have stayed there ever since.

Abigail’s Party is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, March 25. Then touring. It will be at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from June 27 until July 1.

Abigail’s Party is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, March 25. Then touring. It will be at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from June 27 until July 1. Photo © SBurnett

Over 40 years on, anyone else performing this parody of the nouveau riche of 1970s has, literally a hard act to follow. If you copy the style of the original cast, there will be obvious comparisons – but how else do you do it?

These characters are the play. They cannot be any other.

The first performers had the advantage of having created the work. Mike Leigh’s process was to allow his actors to develop the story and their parts. That’s why his plays seemed so real. Whatever the characters said was what people like that would say. We recognised them.

Abigail’s Party is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, March 25. Then touring. It will be at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from June 27 until July 1.

Abigail’s Party is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, March 25. Then touring. It will be at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from June 27 until July 1. Photo © SBurnett

Abigail’s party has two mis-matched twosomes, living in the same street, one pair invited to the house of the other for nibbles and a lot of drink. That generation gained wealth easily and liked to flaunt it. Unlike today’s young people, they did better financially than their parents.

They acquired the latest gadgets, they took an interest in the arts. They were upwardly mobile.

Alison Steadman’s character Beverly, played here with verve by Rebecca Birch, is a spirited socialite who likes sex and sexy songs and getting drunk. She is a beauty consultant, possibly working in a department store.

Selecting her LPs (that was what we called albums) to put on the record player, she wants her guests to hear Donna Summer singing Love to Love You Baby and Elvis Presley singing Don’t – as she moves luringly round the room.

She sneers at her over-worked estate agent husband Laurence, who distains her in return, seeing himself as having “taste”.

Abigail’s Party is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, March 25. Then touring. It will be at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from June 27 until July 1.

Abigail’s Party is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, March 25. Then touring. It will be at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from June 27 until July 1. Photo © SBurnett

He aspires to art appreciation and classic literature. Played with panache by Tom Richardson, his is a life of not so quiet exasperation. Their guests, Angela (a sterling performance by Alice De-Warrenne) is a cheerful nurse who likes to talk about home furnishings.

She is married to the monosyllabic Tony, working in computers – a new career in the 1970s. (A solid performance by George Readshaw). The loquacious Angie tells us that Tony once suggested putting sticky tape over her mouth. “That wasn’t very nice,” she says.

As a foil to both couples, their older, middle class neighbour Sue (Brilliantly understated performance by Jo Castleton) is invited to join them while her daughter Abigail is having a teenage party.

This was created as a comedy and the cast here have sharp comic timing. Over 45 years on, there are some parts now more sad than funny. But there is still a lot to laugh at.

Abigail’s Party is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, March 25. Then touring. It will be at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from June 27 until July 1.

Abigail’s Party is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, March 25. Then touring. It will be at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from June 27 until July 1. Photo © SBurnett

The appreciative first night audience at Cambridge Arts Theatre loved it. It is very much of its time. It was always meant to be – about a particular sort of person in a particular era.

Some things were better then – but definitely not the clothes or the wallpaper. As for marriages, well at least today we get to try before you buy.

Abigail’s Party is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, March 25. Then touring. It will be at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from June 27 until July 1.

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