Writer: Mike Leigh
Director: Sarah Esdaile
Reviewer: Tate James
Through the large glass window of Janet Bird’s nostalgic set we catch our first glimpse in the living room of 1970s suburbia. As the set literally unfolds, the familiar shagpile rugs, record players and fibre optic lamps of yesteryear provide the setting for a dinner party doused with dysfunction.
We meet the simple but sweet nurse and her retired footballer turned computer operator spouse who just moved into number 9; the dowdy divorcee whose daughter is hosting her first party down the road in number 16; and in number 13 we greet the harried husband, more committed in his marriage to his job than his actual wife, and said wife, the hostess, brings their guests together, whilst actually pushing them further apart. All the while, the distant hum of activity from Abigail’s party sounds from afar: a constant reminder of their both faded youth and the inevitability of the future.
The risk of the piece is for it to feel dated: a snapshot of a time gone by with little relevance today. Not in this instance. Sarah Esdaile’s skilful direction plays on the strength of the characters and their relationships, she nods to its 1970s origin without being enslaved by it. With this in mind, the extremes of Mike Leigh’s situational comedy scream out with moments of belly-laughing and cringing, often at the same time.
The cast are first rate, from Daniel Casey’s highly strung Laurence to Calum Callaghan’s headstrong Tony. It’s the unusual trio of females, though, who drive the piece. Vicky Binns is sickeningly complacent as Angela and Rose Keegan is awkwardly zen as Sue. But it is the leading role of Beverly which demands the highest tariff, and Jodie Prenger certainly pays up. Echoes of Alison Steadman in the original are hard to escape, but Prenger’s new take channels the philosophy ‘it doesn’t matter what you say but how loud you say it’. From the seductive hip action to the affectations in her voice, she commands the stage as she commands her dinner guests; and at times its as if we are seeing the early days of Catherine Tate’s Nan.
As the action builds with the noise down the street, a gathering of civilised adults descends into chaos and we are left wondering if the nearby party was more or less scandalous. Three failed or failing relationships play out on stage in a medley or hilarious awkwardness, guaranteeing a night of unconventional entertainment, even if you weren’t invited to Abigail’s Party!
Runs until 30 March 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan