The 70s have exploded on set at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Enter, and you're greeted with a vision of brown and orange from the decade taste forgot: minutely detailed ephemera like a fibre optic lamp, brown rotary telephone, brown record player and a flamenco doll fight for space on perfectly brown shelves.
This is the brown battleground where lives will be dissected over the following, excruciating 100-odd minutes. Beverley's invited her new neighbours, Tony and Angela round for a drink. Also on the guest list is another neighbour: Sue. It's her daughter who, while never seen, provides the title of the piece. The 15-year-old Abigail is having a party at her mum's place, and wants Sue out of the way.
Manners, snobbery, taboos, gin, tonic and cheesy pineapple on sticks are the debris in this brown explosion. As the drinks flow, despite poor Sue saying no on every. single. occasion, we learn about pilchard curry ("a very economical dish") from Ange, the details of Sue's divorce (forced from her), Tony's failed footballing career. Presiding over proceedings, hostess Bev is at once powerful matriarch and lime-green-clad gorgon. Her selfishness, concealed in a pretence of caring for others, seems to know no bounds.
We're here as impostors. Born in the last months of the 70s, we've never seen Mike Leigh's near-legendary Abigail's Party on screen or otherwise. A quick Google search aligns us with our stars: Jill Halfpenny (b 1975) and Natalie Casey (b 1980) are very much our generation. We've grown up with them, watching them in soaps, sitcoms, dancing competitions. And it's a thrill to see them take on these awful period characters with such panache. Halfpenny plays Bev with a physically sexy, predatory gorgeousness, despite the trite crap coming out of her mouth. Casey's Ange is a study in blunt awkwardness, and the results are hilarious. Completely out of her depth in the early evening, her Ange is (believably) finally able to take control of the night when things take a turn for the worse later on.
The pair are well matched by Joe Absolom, menacing as "Tone" and Andy Nyman's David Brentish Laurence. Susannah Harker (from Pride and Prejudice 95!) is also brilliant as Sue; in every elongated, breathy syllable of her speech, we hear the sound of a woman desperate to be elsewhere.
Abigail's Party is currently sold out. But we, and the other groups of women laughing themselves silly in the audience have our fingers crossed for a West End transfer of this brilliant show. Who's complaining about the lack of decent female parts in the theatre? There's three right here.
Abigail's Party is on at the Menier Chocolate Factory, 51-53 Southwark Street, London, SE1 until 21 April. Want to register your interest in an extension or a transfer? You can do that on their website: www.menierchocolatefactory.com. Londonist saw Abigail's Party thanks to a press ticket supplied by Arthur Leone PR.