gaiety theatre, dublin
Writer/director Mike Leigh's first success from 1977 remains his most popular. While young Abigail throws a punky-reggae party, her mother Susan (Emily Raymond) shelters with neighbours Laurence (Martin Marquez) and wife Beverly (Hannah Waterman); also in attendance are new neighbours Angela (Katie Lightfoot) and monosyllabic husband Tony (Samuel James). The point-scoring between the unhappy and increasingly inebriated couples, exacerbated by the presence of nice, middle-class Susan, is contrasted with the freedom of Abigail's anarchic party which we can only hear and whose wild antics are described.
Abigail's alternative party isn't as present as it should be in Lindsay Posner's new production. We hear less of it, and a vital layer is missing. There's also less tension than there should be. At one point, Laurence, the constant butt of his emasculating wife, aims a knife at her throat, but the moment remains slack. The play requires a slightly less fevered pace for its dark undercurrents to accumulate.
But uniformly excellent performances more than compensate for what are probably the inevitable shortcomings of any production faced with the definitive 1977 TV version. Alison Steadman was Beverly, oozing contempt for Laurence and availability to Tony with a statuesque flick of the shoulder and a pout of the lips. Waterman's Beverly might be more obvious but she supplies a fund of aggressive libidinal energy.
Katie Lightfoot's Angela is more obviously stupid, but to glorious effect, and, as she gulps the gin and runs off inanely at the mouth, we can identify intimately with each shift of the morosely glowering Tony's posture.
Leigh's play is a kind of kitchen-sink, or rather, living-room farce, and the most obviously farcical is Laurence, the socially-aspirant estate agent who thinks a bound-set of Dickens and Shakespeare confers middle-class legitimacy. Anyone married to Beverly elicits sympathy, but as he's such a willful working-class snob, aversion, too, and Marquez successfully arouses this dual response.
Susan, the outsider, is the one we're meant to identify with in her discomfort and politely-suppressed irritation. She's more robust and less tremulous here, and weathers the shocks provided by Bev and company better. But the stiffness in her bearing works well, particularly when held like a wooden block by Laurence while Bev and Tony dance coiled hotly together.
Mike Britton's detailed set design is so 1970s you can smell it, and Posner's revival of this enduring comic gem excites a horrible fascination.