The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 21st January, 2019
Mike Leigh’s classic TV play gets a new lease of life in this new touring production directed by Sarah Esdaile. The first thing that strikes you is Janet Bird’s impressive set, all suburban 1970s with the perspective raked just enough to engender a slight sense of claustrophobia. The action takes place solely in the living room of Beverly and Laurence, and like the neighbours who gather there for a spot of social drinking, we can be forgiven if we feel like we’re caged in with wild animals.
Jodie Prenger absolutely rules the roost as the monstrous bully Beverly, in a splendidly performed characterisation of bad behaviour dressed up as good manners. That’s what this piece is, a comedy of manners with some very black humour indeed. Prenger is magnificent, eyes shooting daggers – mainly at her tightly wound, hard-working husband Laurence (Daniel Casey) – and she very much makes the part her own rather than trying to recreate Alison Steadman’s original incarnation.
Vicky Binns is great value as the tactless Angela, a kind of acolyte for Beverly, while Calum Callaghan’s monosyllabic Tony is brimming with pent-up aggression. Completing the quintet is Rose Keegan as the meek and uncomfortable Sue, almost stealing the show, in my view. By the way, the titular party and the eponymous Abigail are both off-stage in Sue’s house. Sarah Esdaile gets the most out of this skilful ensemble and paces the exchanges to perfection while maintaining a kind of heightened naturalism.
It’s a very funny piece. Originally, it was a comment on contemporary society; nowadays, it’s a period piece and there is the laughter of nostalgia as certain brand names crop up. The attitudes, of course, are still very much with us. What’s the betting Laurence and Beverly would vote Leave? This is very much a character-driven piece, dealing with the dynamics and inherent tensions of relationships as well as the sheer awfulness of social niceties.
A high-quality production, where everything from performances to costumes to soundtrack is all spot on. A real treat to see a classic presented so excellently, so hilariously. It’s great fun to witness such carryings-on, but Leigh is also holding up a mirror: there is plenty for each of us to recognise in ourselves here, if we’d dare to admit it.
I dare: I’m very much a Sue.
Jodie Prenger as Beverly
Leave a comment | tags: Abigail's Party, Birmingham, Calum Callaghan, Daniel Casey, Janet Bird, Jodie Prenger, Mike Leigh, review, Rose Keegan, Sarah Esdaile, The Alexandra Theatre, Vicky Binns | posted in Theatre Review
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Tuesday 15th January, 2013
Originally a contemporary play about the emerging lower middle class in the 1970s, Mike Leigh’s comedy is now very much a period piece. Mike Britton’s set evokes nostalgia for the bad taste of that bygone age – it is a symphony in brown and dark orange. Contrasting with this is lady of the house, Beverly (Hannah Waterman) in an emerald green evening gown and luxuriant blonde hair. She gyrates to Donna Summer as she waits for her guests to arrive. Husband Laurence (Martin Marquez) comes home from work but has not finished for the day. Already tensions are simmering; we get the feeling the evening will not go well.
New neighbours Angela and Tony arrive and the overbearing, ignorant Beverly holds court in this excruciating but funny comedy of manners. It is a tour de force by Hannah Waterman yet the other characters are also allowed to come to the fore. Katie Lightfoot’s Angela is an enthusiastic guest but clearly under the thumb of her monosyllabic brute of a husband (Samuel James, speaking volumes with each ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.) Angela hints at the domestic abuse she endures long before tempers are lost. It is this dark undercurrent that grounds the characters in reality. Their masks of sociability, their public faces, are inefficient at covering what is really going on.
The fifth member of this painful soiree is Susan (Emily Raybould) exiled from her own home by the titular party, thrown by her teenage daughter. Susan is bullied relentlessly by Beverly into accepting drink after drink and cocktail snack after cocktail snack until she literally cannot stomach any more. She represents the established middle class, already affected by the growing divorce rate; she now has her liberal values tested by this influx of new people. Emily Raybould is pitch perfect as the put-upon Susan, pushed to her limit.
Martin Marquez in his three-piece suit and porn-star moustache is wonderful as the hard-working estate agent, striving to keep Beverley in the manner to which she has become accustomed. He is the sacrificial lamb on the altar of materialism, a forerunner of what was to become prevalent in the decade that followed.
This touring production shows that the play still works perfectly and deserves its status as a classic. Not just a look back at the decade of bad taste, the play captures the agonies of small talk and the discomfort of social gatherings, affording the audience to indulge in a spot of people-watching from a safe distance.
It’s funny because it has a ring of truth.
Leave a comment | tags: Abigail's Party, Emily Raybould, Hannah Waterman, Katie Lightfoot, Malvern Theatres, Martin Marquez, Mike Leigh, review, Samuel James | posted in Theatre Review