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
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 22nd February, 2012
This production comes from Bolton’s Octagon theatre and feels right at home in the New Vic, easily matching the high quality of their best work. Of course, mention Alfie and the inestimable Michael Caine springs to mind from the film version of Bill Naughton’s 1963 play. It is to the credit of leading man David Ricardo-Pearce that as soon as he begins his first monologue as the chirpy Cockney cock—you don’t think of Michael Caine again all evening.
Alfie engages us from the get-go. He is a likable fellow despite his selfish, self-absorbed shenanigans. His philosophy is to look after Number One. He is an awful solipsist who deliberately keeps himself at an emotional distance from the people – most of them women – in his life. He expects his women to behave according to certain patterns and gives them short shrift when they don’t comply. He looks to the audience for complicity, fixing men in the audience with a look in the eye as he poses his rhetorical questions. He got me a few times and all I could do was nod and smile uncomfortably. With almost fifty years separating us, Alfie’s attitudes are more laughable now than shocking.
In the second half the low-rent Lothario’s fortunes take a downward turn. T’ Northern lass he picked up in a cafe (Vicky Binns) finally has her fill of scrubbing his flat and cooking him custards. She packs her bag and walks out – which is usually his recourse when things turn sour. A one-off encounter with a married woman leads to an illegal abortion – this is the play’s starkest moment, the horror behind the swinging Sixties lifestyle. Alfie delivers a monologue about cleaning up the aborted foetus that is brutally powerful without being too graphic. At last, his way of life appears to be getting to him. He decides to settle down with older woman Ruby. He even takes her a bunch of flowers, for Gawd’s sake, only to discover her in flagrante with a cigar-smoker. The tables have turned. Women are changing. He is unable to. He ends up alone, stranded, an anomaly.
David Ricardo-Pearce carries the show like Atlas. He is hardly off stage at all. He keeps our sympathies, we enjoy his patter even if we are more enlightened these days, and his performance packs real punch in the later scenes. Occasionally there is the odd slip when his accent turns a little too modern in inflection, you get me, but these do not mar the effectiveness of the whole.
The supporting cast bustle on and off, doubling up as contrasting characters along the way. I particularly enjoyed John Bramwell as widower Joe, whose loneliness leads him to visit hospitals with a bag of apples. He gives Alfie an early warning to change his ways or face a similar fate, but of course, our hero doesn’t listen. Bramwell returns later on as the chillingly business-like backstreet abortionist. Sturdy support is provided by Francesca Ryan (Ruby) and Isabel Ford (Lily) – in fact, director David Thacker has collected a fine ensemble who bring the bygone age to life. And it is a bygone age, although the play doesn’t feel like a museum piece. Men like Alfie have been left behind by the sexual revolution but the play speaks of broader aspects of human relationships. It is a much richer work than our familiarity with the famous film might lead us to anticipate.
1 Comment | tags: Alfie, Bill Naughton, Bolton Octagon, David Ricardo-Pearce, David Thacker, New Vic Theatre, review, Vicky Binns | posted in Theatre Review