Mike Leigh’s classic, Abigail’s Party, has been revived under the direction of Vivienne Garnett. The script is a guilty secret for middle-class types who like to sneer at those beneath them but who can’t express their shameful feelings openly so they watch Mike Leigh instead. The only sympathetic character, Susan, is a well-bred gal who arrives at the party with a bottle of red wine which Beverly puts in the fridge. Red wine in the fridge! How hilarious. Offered a gin or a Bacardi and Coke, Susan asks for a sherry, which Beverly doesn’t stock. A drinks cabinet with nothing but gin and Bacardi! What a bunch of barbarians. Next they’ll be saying ‘lounge’ instead of ‘sitting-room’.
Far from feeling dated, this 44-year-old script has kept pace with society. Laurence, the estate agent, despises his unschooled neighbours and boasts of his intellectual sophistication — not unlike David Brent. And Beverly, the sozzled but adorable hostess, carries strong hints of Katie Price. The brilliant Kellie Shirley plays Beverly as a gloriously erotic control freak. Nowhere in the dramatic canon is there a character with quite this mix of tacky condescension and raw sex appeal. Hopefully the producers will record this gem and release it on one of the digital streaming services that have sprung up during the pandemic. A word of warning. To embrace this show and to laugh at suburbanites is a sign of profound social anxiety. Genuinely posh people must find Mike Leigh and his works utterly baffling.
Tender Napalm, by Philip Ridley, is a tone poem about love which is regularly revived around the world. The King’s Head has mounted a new production to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its première. The action opens with a Man and a Woman exchanging tender pillow talk. In a lengthy conceit, the Man imagines forcing a gun into her mouth. This feels like a slightly sick fantasy. But the Woman is unperturbed; she uses the same figure of speech to him. In fact, she seems to be his superior officer. She orders him to behave as if he’s tied up, and he duly obeys.
The couple claim to be stranded on an island inhabited by armies of slave-monkeys. They mention the aftermath of a tsunami that has ravaged their home. The Woman tells the Man that she’s descended from sea creatures while he refers to a group of aliens who have arrived from a far-off planet. This is all nonsense, of course, but it keeps coming. The Man contacts the aliens and reports the result of their summit. The alien leader grins a lot and speaks English with a mid-western American accent. His spaceship, he explains, is packed with nuclear weapons which he can’t fire because his species is pacifist so he needs humans to set off the missiles because he knows that Earthlings are war-like. This sounds like a political message wedged into a text whose genre is impossible to place. Is it a drama-school exercise gone mad? Or a dream-diary written by a psycho with the IQ of a toaster? Or a noisy pitch for a new computer game?
No clues are offered by the visuals. The actors are dressed in matching sportswear: white T-shirts and grey jogging pants. They look like extras from a sci-fi movie or candidates for the role of Blue Peter presenter. There’s a good reason why actors wear costumes on stage. The clothes give important information about the characters’ age, profession and social rank, but this production seems unfamiliar with that concept. To increase the confusion, the set looks like a children’s paddling-pool emptied of water. The characters don’t have names either, of course. Ultimately, these aren’t artistic errors but examples of poor etiquette and lousy customer service. Every opportunity to disregard the audience has been seized and every opportunity to respect them has been disregarded.
The show culminates with a ten-minute athletics session in which the thesps prance around shouting out words at random. Finally, in a closing scene, all is revealed. The script is a fantasy in the minds of two teenagers who meet at a party and start to flirt. As soon as the characters and the location are clear, the dialogue becomes intelligible and engaging. But the preceding 70 minutes is a waste of oxygen.
Ridley has been praised for his literary inventiveness and the script is brimful of weird verbal mutations. But Ridley is better at terse images. When the Woman imagines castrating the Man she likens his little penis to ‘a button mushroom in a Brillo pad’. That’s more like it.