Theatre with Mark Brown

Abigail’s Party

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Four stars

At King’s Theatre, Edinburgh,

April 16-20

Ulster American

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Five stars

run ended;

Touring internationally, March and April

For many people across the UK, Mike Leigh’s iconic 1977 drama Abigail’s Party is the quintessence of British culture in the Seventies. The play portrays, in hilarious, bitingly satirical caricature, the denizens of a predominantly white, aspirational middle-class English suburb.

As director Sarah Esdaile’s staging acknowledges emphatically, the passage of four decades has confirmed that the 1970s themselves are the primary feature of the drama. Whereas audiences in 1977 were laughing at themselves or (more likely) their neighbours, today theatregoers are either enjoying a giggle at the expense of their parents or grandparents, or wincing as they recall their own contribution to “the decade that style forgot”.

These are not the Seventies of David Bowie, The Specials and the Anti Nazi League, but, rather, of Demis Roussos, kitsch erotic art and bar olives as an expression of petit-bourgeois sophistication.

Abigail, teenage daughter of mild-mannered, liberal Sue (recently separated from her husband), is having a house party. That gives Beverly (a cartoonish, larger-than-life embodiment of the stereotypical 1970s suburban housewife) an excuse to get Sue and neighbours Angela and Tony round for a party of their own.

What follows could almost be the model for much of the British character comedy of the following decades, from Harry Enfield and The Fast Show to Little Britain. As the drink flows (thanks to Beverly’s energetic, not to say oppressive, hosting) Leigh’s fabulously constructed characters become increasingly humorous, and progressively darker.

The barely concealed contempt of Beverly’s estate agent husband Laurence and Tony towards their spouses makes a sharply observed mockery of Beverly’s expressions of sympathy for Sue’s single status. A sudden moment of casual racism (regarding African-Caribbean kids at Abigail’s party) takes the breath away.

Beverly is played with brilliantly funny, grotesque vulgarity (yet a touching, underlying sympathy) by the exceptional Jodie Prenger. Her flirtation with Tony (the hilariously deadpan Calum Callaghan) is as despairing as it is obvious.

Daniel Casey (moustachioed and sporting a three-piece suit and solid, black briefcase, in true Seventies style) is perfect as the frustrated, irritated and, ultimately, combustible Laurence. Rose Keegan’s bewildered Sue and Vicky Binns’s seemingly compliant Angela complete an impressive cast.

None of this would have the impact it does were it not for designer Janet Bird’s remarkable set and costumes, all of which scream “1970s” as resolutely as a packet of Spangles or a bottle of Babycham.

Perfectly poised between biting-yet-humane satire and uproarious, anti-nostalgic farce, Esdaile’s production is a fabulously entertaining, thoroughly engaging night out.

If, thanks to Leigh’s play, 1977 was a vintage year for English comedy, 2018 was, arguably, the best year for stage comedy in Scotland since 2001 (the year of Gregory Burke’s hilarious modern classic Gagarin Way). Indeed, last year offered Scottish theatre audiences not one, but two memorable comic plays: namely, Martin McCormick’s wonderfully absurdist Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths and David Ireland’s searingly satirical Ulster American (the latter of which has been revived by the Traverse Theatre Company).

Following a short run at the Traverse, the production is now off on a richly deserved international tour of Adelaide (March 13-17), Auckland (March 20-24), Dublin (April 10-20) and Belfast (April 24-28). It may seem premature to say so just seven months after Ireland’s play premiered on the Edinburgh Fringe, but this revival (which keeps its fantastic original cast and creative team) reasserts Ulster American’s claim to classic status.

It is true, of course, that Ireland’s delightfully vicious satire of #metoo political correctness in the American and British film and theatre industries is very much of its moment; but that is also true of Dario Fo’s enduring satire Accidental Death of an Anarchist (which was inspired by the suspicious death in police custody of a left-wing revolutionary activist in Milan in 1969). There is, I suspect, enough of Fo’s wit, anger and craft in Ireland’s drama for it to have similar powers of endurance.

The central conceit of Ulster American is a brilliant one. Vain Irish-American Hollywood star actor Jay Conway (Darrell D’Silva on monstrously absurd form) has arrived in London under a massive (and blazingly stupid) misapprehension about the drama in which he is due to play the lead.

Conway and English theatre director Leigh Carver (who is rendered with excruciating liberalism by Robert Jack) wait for playwright Ruth Davenport (a marvellously funny and incendiary performance by Lucianne McEvoy) to fly in from Belfast. As they do so, Ireland’s comedy explodes the absurdities of PC posturing with the colourful chaos of a bomb in a paint factory.

The writing provides some truly delicious lines. Despite his own, very special brand of “toxic masculinity”, Conway declares that his Irish Catholic heritage gives him an “intersectional exemption”. Bursting the American actor’s self-satisfied bubble where his Northern Irish accent is concerned, Davenport tells Conway that he sounds like “Dick Van Morrison”.

Director Gareth Nicholls’s production grasps entirely the play’s need for steadiness as it hurtles towards its brutally hilarious conclusion.