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.