Oxford Playhouse, Oxford – until 20 April
This a fascinating play, not least because forty years on we can’t seem to get enough of it. Cherished by am-dram, revived by excellent casts and theatres, it tours to keen houses and gales of laughter. Yet Mike Leigh’s most famous (and not typical) play is cold-hearted, snobbish, misogynistic and dated. Leigh – rebutting Denis Potter’s ““based on nothing more edifying than rancid disdain…twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes” insists that it is a tragicomedy, “a lamentation, not a sneer”. I tried very hard to buy that, but whatever the intention, its heart emerges as frozen in a posture of amused contempt. It gets away with it because, done properly, even as you shudder it is horribly funny.
Beverley’s famous soirée at 13 Richmond Road is a window into a hell which makes Sartre’s Huis Clos seem like Center Parcs. Much of its humour is based on contempt for a social class a rank below the knowledgeable theatre audience – Beaujolais in the fridge, cheese-and-pineapple hedgehogs, naff Boots prints – added to that mid-class’ patronizing contempt for one still further down, people doing “shift work”, saving up for a leather-look three-piece, making pilchard curry, and in Beverley’s husband Laurence’s view, lowering the local tone. It is also, more importantly, about five people who are not happy or fulfilled in life, and who are offered not one fragment of redemptive hope of ever being so.
But it’s funny. And today, in an assured production born at the Theatre Royal Bath, its cast take it for all it’s worth. Amanda Abbington is perfect as the hostess, a wannabe Margo Leadbetter without the grace, swaying in a Grecian dress ever lower on the shoulder in the presence of fresh testosterone, a sashaying Stalin plying her guests with drink and nibbles (Are you su-ah? when they try to refuse) . She patronizes the sweetly unoffended Angie and vamps her taciturn husband, never missing a chance to coo a viciously “understanding” remark. It goes without saying that above all, Beverley is bored. Ben Caplan’s Laurence, an estate agent, is another disappointed figure, hunched and unhealthy, stumping nicely around, prone to flickers of rage and (the one touching thing in the play) to cultural aspiration at the Lowry-print and James-Galway level and with a genuinely sad envy of people with “a talent”. Charlotte Mills is a touching Angie, tubbily kind, unpretentious, unoffendable and nursily competent; Ciaran Owens glowers for England as her oafish embarrassed Tony.
And we laugh. At the period detail now, too: Demis Roussos, a house bought for 21k, Beverley’s needing her husband to write the cheque for the weekly shop, the fabulously 70s decor. A good few of the audience I joined were too young to remember it all: maybe it was seeing a revival of this play a few years back which caused them panickily to vote Remain because they feared Mr Farage would lead us back there. A few of the older audience, it must be admitted, actually sang along to the final Demis Roussos track after the disastrous conclusion. But the eagerness to whoop and cheer, seconds after the fatal coronary and useless CPR, made you realize that we may still be at heart the same nation that cheered the bear-baiting and turned out en masse for hangings. It’s a cruel play. But OK. It’s funny.