Writer: Mike Leigh
Director: Amanda Huxtable
Designer: Emma Williams
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Abigail’s Party was an iconic television/stage play of the late 1970s, but the passage of 40 years hasn’t made it any less current. The Hull Truck production is, in fact, the third by a major regional theatre in 2017/2018, though the first north of the Watford Gap. What is more contentious is whether it is, as often claimed, a “state of the nation” play. It nails the aspirant selfishness that was about to coalesce into Thatcherism, it’s true, but much of our growing horror at these dreadful, but all too real, human beings derive from more timeless qualities and weaknesses. The recent Hornchurch production featured a two-generations-on update alongside the original, but Abigail’s Party is as much 2018 as 1977, though the period trappings – Demis Roussos, cheese and pineapple on sticks and the rest – are fun.
The play, created by Mike Leigh out of improvised sessions in which the actors explored their characters’ backstories, deals with an evening in Beverly and Laurence Moss’s suburban home. He is an estate agent; she used to be a beautician; they are decently prosperous lower middle class. Both aspire to quite different goals. He seeks to make money (to satisfy her demands, maybe) and tries to present himself as a man of culture, with reproductions of Van Gogh and Lowry on the walls and Dickens and Shakespeare (unread) on the bookshelves. She looks longingly at Hollywood glamour, has unlimited supplies of insensitivity and, when she hears the word culture, reaches for a Tom Jones record – or another drink.
They have invited their new neighbours, Tony and Angela, in for a drink. They, one feels, in their own home, would pass for decent human beings, though there are plenty of hints of fissures in their three-year-old marriage. Rather less well off than the Mosses (Beverly is kind enough to point out that their house is smaller), Angela is a nurse, but on her night off is all too willing to flatter her “glamorous” hostess and match her drink for drink. Tony, a computer operator, would rather be anywhere else. Little emerges of his backstory, beyond a spell on Crystal Palace’s books, but somehow we are convinced that he has a back story. Then there is Susan, older, with a decade more living in the street, divorced from an architect and taking refuge from her teenage daughter’s party – the eponymous, but invisible, Abigail.
Until a dramatic last ten minutes – during which Beverly reaches new heights of monsterdom – nothing much happens. People get very drunk, score points off each other, flirt, probe weaknesses, desperately have fun, but sit with glum faces as the noise of the real fun at Abigail’s party comes through.
The major innovation of Amanda Huxtable’s intelligently judged and skilfully paced production is casting Angela and Tony with black actors. This is not colour-blind casting, but making a specific point, notably when Laurence launches into a diatribe about the way newcomers are dragging down the street. Throughout the play, Tony’s disgust at the way his wife fawns round Beverly, the successful suburbanite, gains a little more edge from the colour question.
Katharine Bennett-Fox is superb as Beverly, posing and glamorous, grotesque and abusive, totally unaware of anything outside self-gratification. At first that Essex accent seems almost too much, but, as she becomes more monstrous, she also becomes more convincing. Ani Nelson (Angela), eagerly embracing Beverly’s every mood, finally gaining independence and a sort of authority, and Daniel Ward (Tony), finding more expression in “Yes” than seems possible, are perfectly matched. Rebecca Charles’ Susan is the epitome of sadness and anxiety and Duncan MacInnes (Laurence) bounces around eagerly and tries to hang onto his party manners while the volcano of frustration builds inside him.
Emma Williams’ set cleverly combines the comfortably naff with what was always the lure of suburbia, the country on your doorstep, and builds in a short set of steps so the actors can express their level of inebriation by their care in descending.
Reviewed on 4th October 2018 | Image: Contributed