Hostess from hell

Theatre - Amy Rosenthal finds that the legendary Seventies party has lost its sting

Over dinner, after seeing Abigail's Party, my companions reminisced about the culinary favourites of the Seventies: coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon. Personally, I was mostly eating fish fingers cut up small by someone else at the time. In 1977, when Abigail's Party was premiered on the same stage at the Hampstead Theatre, I was three years old. So, unlike a large proportion of the audience that evening, I wasn't there the first time around.

But I didn't need to be. The play and the film are legendary, owing mostly to Alison Steadman's creation of Beverly, the hostess from hell. Dissatisfied with her put-upon husband Laurence, but anxious to show off the lifestyle with which he provides her, Beverly throws a cocktail party to welcome new neighbours Angela and Tony to the street. She extends the invitation to Sue, an anxious divorcee, whose teenage daughter Abigail is giving the eponymous party next door. During the relentless evening that follows, Beverly tyrannises her guests variously into inebriation, humiliation, seduction and, in the case of Laurence, a fatal heart attack.

The revival at Hampstead has two hard acts to follow: Steadman and the Seventies. The current grim triumph of reality TV, in which documentary systematically replaces drama, means that we are used to being flies on walls. We are constantly flies on walls. Despite political correctness, exposure is the order of the day and almost nothing is taboo. Consequently, we are so hardened and so hard to shock that the climax of the play must surely have less impact than it did the first time around.

As a result, this excellent production seems bereft of its sting. The set, an expensively tasteless living-room which in 1977 must have precisely defined Beverly's class, her pretensions and aspirations, now merely signifies the look of the Seventies. We are amused by it because we recognise or remember it, but now, when retro is sexy and kitsch is cool, even Beverly's lava lamp no longer means the same as it did at the time.

So what does an audience get from this revival? A kind of nostalgia, certainly, both for the original production and for the seeming innocence of pineapple-and-cheese pyramids, vinyl records and lines such as "I don't think smoking in moderation can do you much harm"; a transfixed fascination at the monster that is Beverly; a lot of rich laughter and superb performances all round, especially from the women.

Elizabeth Berrington tackles the hard task of reinventing Beverly with a chilling ruthlessness, which expresses itself even in the insouciant lines of her body. Far from attempting to eclipse Alison Steadman by impersonating her, she makes the character strikingly her own. Rosie Cavaliero is hilarious as the desperate Ange, infused with a surprising dignity when she tries to revive Laurence at the end, and Wendy Nottingham captures well the restrained anguish of brittle Sue.

But I found that I kept thinking of Alan Ayckbourn's plays of the same period such as Absurd Person Singular and Absent Friends; his exquisite structuring and layering, so artfully concealed by the apparent glibness of his dialogue; the darkness and sadness inherent in the comedy. Like Abigail's Party, Ayckbourn's plays are acutely observed social documents, painfully and often cruelly accurate. But why am I moved by them, and not this?

There was only one moment in Abigail's Party that really moved me. Beverly and Tony have been dancing with flagrant, barely restrained desire in front of their spouses, and Beverly forces Laurence to dance with Sue. The sexual heat between Beverly and Tony juxtaposed with Laurence and Sue's stiff, awkward two-step at arms' length, is suddenly sharply potent. Otherwise, I felt the audience watching the play with the kind of voyeuristic mix of horror and pleasure to which we are so accustomed in the era of Big Brother. Even Laurence's death elicits only a fractional pity, and nothing for his horrendous wife.

One of my companions compared the play to The Royle Family, and in some ways it is a fitting modern parallel. The naturalism of the dialogue is riveting. The most mundane exchanges become interesting because they are so real, we recognise the characters in every word they say. However, there is more than snobbery in our recognition. Their desperation is not simply to do with class, but with a universal loneliness, laziness, fear and disappointment. Abigail's Party should be moving; it somehow isn't. But it is fascinating, and often extremely funny.

Amy Rosenthal is a playwright and writer-in-residence for Sphinx Theatre Company

Abigail's Party is at the Hampstead Theatre, London N1 (020 7722 9301), until 14 September