All the publicity material for Jon Claydon and Tim Lawler’s first play implies an intense, psychological thriller, so it’s a surprise when the lights come up on a typical middle class comedy of manners in the Abigail’s Party mould.
As the guests arrive at the new Southwark flat of Alex (Jessie Wallace), seemingly inconsequential chatter divulges the nature of the relationships most effectively – old boyfriend Bryan, best mate Erica and her husband, and school misfit Helen, who appears to have been invited by mistake. As the dialogue unfolds, it occurs that the title of the play may be a misdirection, with each of the characters haunted by past mistakes.
In these opening sequences, it is Caroline Catz who stands out. Her Erica is feisty, humorous and in control, with the rest of the cast circling around her. It’s only as the play progresses that the nature of hostess Alex’s back story, and her uneasy relationship with her heavily discounted new apartment, starts to darken the proceedings. This is Abigail’s Party directed by Wes Craven.
As the play swerves downwards into psychological horror and the stage darkens, Wallace shines. Underwhelming in the initial scenes, later events call on her every acting ability and she is able to lend considerable weight to scenes that in the wrong hands would risk being ridiculously farcical.
It is in these scenes also that Claydon and Lawler’s script shows its weaknesses. As the lights go out, characters frequently rush off stage for seemingly no other reason than to allow two others to have a tete-a-tete in front of the audience. Sue Devaney’s Helen suffers from an indistinct development that never adequately explains her change in character. It feels as if the writers needed a reason to get the denouement they have chosen – which is shocking, visceral and superbly enacted by both Wallace and Devaney – but in doing so have skipped a few pages that allow the audience to make real sense of it. And after the biggest shock of the evening, the ending seems perfunctory and the theatrical equivalent of ending mid-sentence.