It was in 1977 that Alison Steadman, cigarette and drink in hand, first swayed her smoochy, hunchy shoulders to the strains of Demis Roussos and became the definitive embodiment of Mike Leigh’s horrifying yet compellingly charismatic Beverley. As a BBC Play For Today Abigail’s Party was a colossal sensation. Even now, forty-six years on, the writing is so good, the comedy so great, the five characters so iconic, the underlying, seething tensions so engaging, the eventual eruption of shocking events so thrilling that the eerie attraction of this darkly hilarious play still remains as compelling and as full of impact as ever.

At Beverley’s suburban soiree, along with husband, Laurence, are newcomer neighbours Tony and Angela, and nervous, earnest Sue, mother to 15-year old Abigail who’s having her first party at her mum’s house just a stone’s throw away. As Bek Palmer’s wide-ranging, clever set attests, this is the era of loud wallpaper patterns and massive wooden wall units. It’s also a time when many working class people, like Bob and Thelma in The Likely Lads, aspired to climb the social ladder by aping the better-off middle-classes in becoming “more sophisticated” in their tastes, possessions and cultural interests. In spite of her elegant party gown, though, and her cubes of pineapple and cheese on toothpicks and never-ending little drink top-ups, Beverley is far from being the perfect, sophisticated hostess: she is, in fact, a tactless, insensitive, selfish nightmare of a person, and a lethal one at that, totally blind to the fact that she is a nightmare.

London Classic Theatre’s production, directed by Michael Cabot (as in 2007), is a breathtaking triumph thanks to magnificent all round performances. Rebecca Birch’s Beverley is every bit the compelling, opinionated, hellish Beverley she should be, her intensity growing as the alcohol flows. When the songs of Jose Feliciano and Elvis revolve on the turntable her constant flirting with gruff, surly, monosyllabic Tony, played admirably by George Readshaw, turns to full-on erotic dance. Meanwhile, like Janine Duvitski in the original, Alice de Warenne, creates a riveting Angela. Less elegant than Beverley, perpetually sunny, smiling and agreeable to all, she comes over as somewhat simple and shallow at times, not objecting in the slightest to her husband’s increasingly erotic dancing with Beverley. Well, she’s far too busy slipping snack rings onto her fingers, thoroughly amusing herself as she eats them off. Her practical side as a caring nurse, though, is not in doubt.

Perfectly portrayed by Jo Castleton is Sue, a divorced architect’s wife, forced to be here to keep out of the way during her daughter’s party. Well-spoken, polite, restrained, proper and demure in her frumpier, more classical clothing and very anxious about her daughter’s increasingly raucous party, Sue is from a social and educational stratum above that of the garrulous Essex girls. Largely via body-language and facial expressions Castleton superbly conveys her distaste, awkwardness, unspoken alarm and discomfort, both mental and physical.

Tom Richardson is the frustrated, thwarted estate agent, Laurence, put down at every turn by his bull-dozing wife, his finer aspirations to learn more about art and classical music and better himself totally suffocated. As underlying, simmering conflicts, disillusionments and disappointments bubble to the surface for all of them Laurence’s stress levels go further into orbit.

In this satire on class aspirations in the flare-trousered era when, as primary breadwinners, husbands felt entitled to call all the tunes, the successful delivery of side-splitting comedy and jaw-dropping tragedy side by side is perfectly achieved. As the simmering resentments that silently underpin these relationships gradually escalate and erupt, the drama remains immensely engaging and emotionally riveting at every single, delightfully terrible moment.

Eileen Caiger Gray

Abigail’s Party tours in England, Wales and Ireland until July. To find out more including tour dates follow this link.