Abigail’s Party – Orchard Theatre, Dartford

Writer: Mike Leigh

Director: Sarah Esdaile

Reviewer: Dan English

Jodie Prenger leads a determined cast trying to revive an ageing script one tense joke at a time in during the painfully awkward festivity which makes up Abigail’s Party, reaching Dartford as part of its nationwide tour.

Mike Leigh’s play focuses on the strained relationship between Laurence and Beverley, with the latter determined to provide an evening’s entertainment for her neighbours, with some amusing and disastrous consequences. The script itself throws up a few dilemmas, including some of its tired material, but it does perhaps still have some resonance upon a 21stcentury audience.

Prenger is strong as the overbearingly unbearable Beverley, desperate to be the hostess with the most as she entertains neighbours both new and old. Prenger’s dry wit and her interpretation of Beverley’s screeching voice is good, and there are moments when she makes the role and stage her own. It’s a performance that keeps the piece going even at its stalest moments. Her character development is the most interesting part of this production, with its climax at the same point as the piece’s, creating real tension and impact as it draws to a close.

Daniel Casey’s Laurence offers an interesting dynamic in this production. At face value, Laurence is a put-upon husband, aiming to please and appease his wife while charming the guests. However, as the play develops, there’s an argument that Leigh’s script, and the characters of Laurence and Tony (Calum Callaghan) explore the more current notions of toxic masculinity – placing a 21st century spin of an ageing piece of theatre, and certainly exploring what it means to be a man.

Vicky Binns’ Angela has moments of real dimness, providing some of the more amusing but also tense moments when clashing with husband Tony. Binns offers chemistry with Prenger which only increases as the piece develops, as the two bounce well from each other.

Rose Keegan’s Sue offers a meek alternative to the bold Beverley and bubbly Angela. Sue’s teenage daughter Abigail, who we never see, is hosting a party, and Keegan does well to portray an anxious Sue subtly wondering about the states of both daughter and house.

The naturalistic design (Janet Bird) immerses the audience from top to bottom into the 70s, but it’s baffling as to why the set is so far away from the edge of the stage. In desperation to see the action, attention is diverted from what actually is happening, and one is left wondering what harm there would been in moving it ever so slightly forward.

Abigail’s Party is beginning to show its wear a little. While Leigh’s jokes still hit home, the piece limps more often than it runs, aided enormously by a hard-working cast. It might not be the hottest party in town, but there’s still enough life in it for another late evening.

​Runs until 6 April 2019 | Image: Contributed

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