Festival Theatre, Malvern, Tuesday 15th January, 2013
Originally a contemporary play about the emerging lower middle class in the 1970s, Mike Leigh’s comedy is now very much a period piece. Mike Britton’s set evokes nostalgia for the bad taste of that bygone age – it is a symphony in brown and dark orange. Contrasting with this is lady of the house, Beverly (Hannah Waterman) in an emerald green evening gown and luxuriant blonde hair. She gyrates to Donna Summer as she waits for her guests to arrive. Husband Laurence (Martin Marquez) comes home from work but has not finished for the day. Already tensions are simmering; we get the feeling the evening will not go well.
New neighbours Angela and Tony arrive and the overbearing, ignorant Beverly holds court in this excruciating but funny comedy of manners. It is a tour de force by Hannah Waterman yet the other characters are also allowed to come to the fore. Katie Lightfoot’s Angela is an enthusiastic guest but clearly under the thumb of her monosyllabic brute of a husband (Samuel James, speaking volumes with each ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.) Angela hints at the domestic abuse she endures long before tempers are lost. It is this dark undercurrent that grounds the characters in reality. Their masks of sociability, their public faces, are inefficient at covering what is really going on.
The fifth member of this painful soiree is Susan (Emily Raybould) exiled from her own home by the titular party, thrown by her teenage daughter. Susan is bullied relentlessly by Beverly into accepting drink after drink and cocktail snack after cocktail snack until she literally cannot stomach any more. She represents the established middle class, already affected by the growing divorce rate; she now has her liberal values tested by this influx of new people. Emily Raybould is pitch perfect as the put-upon Susan, pushed to her limit.
Martin Marquez in his three-piece suit and porn-star moustache is wonderful as the hard-working estate agent, striving to keep Beverley in the manner to which she has become accustomed. He is the sacrificial lamb on the altar of materialism, a forerunner of what was to become prevalent in the decade that followed.
This touring production shows that the play still works perfectly and deserves its status as a classic. Not just a look back at the decade of bad taste, the play captures the agonies of small talk and the discomfort of social gatherings, affording the audience to indulge in a spot of people-watching from a safe distance.
It’s funny because it has a ring of truth.