Writer: Mike Leigh
Director: Sarah Esdaile
Reviewer: James Garrington
When it was first written in 1977 Mike Leigh’s masterpiece was very much a commentary of the time. This was a time when social mobility started to become a real ambition for many, when the aspirational middle-classes wanted to have the latest and best of everything and would do everything they could to keep up with the people next door. As time has moved on it has become more of a reflection on past times, but nonetheless retains much of its relevance. The dialogue may reflect the 1970s, but the characters still live among us.
Anyone old enough to remember the 1970s will recognise the set too. Janet Bird’s design provides a nostalgia-fest in itself, complete with a real leather suite, fibre lamp and soda syphon. Whether by intent or simply practicality for a touring production, it only takes up a portion of the stage, funnelling our attention into the space as the claustrophobic setting highlights the tensions between the characters
For a lot of the audience, it is impossible to watch a production of Abigail’s Party without comparing it to the TV broadcast with Alison Steadman as Beverly, and director Sarah Esdaile has done a fine job to strike a balance between creating something original and satisfying audience expectations. Jodie Prenger as Beverly has not copied Steadman’s performance, but it wouldn’t be the same without the Essex accent. She has channelled the essence of the character created by Steadman and Leigh and provided her own interpretation of it, and very good it is too. Her Beverly is nicely overbearing, wanting to be the life and soul of the party and determined that everything will be just right for her drinks with the neighbours.
Prenger is just one part of a perfectly-cast ensemble. Daniel Casey is spot-on as her estate agent husband Laurence, looking to prove that he has made something of himself with constant references to the trappings surrounding them – the house and contents, the car (changed every year), his work, the neighbourhood. The just-moved-in neighbours don’t quite meet his expectations – has the neighbourhood gone downhill, he asks them, before pointing out that they wouldn’t know. His performance is a nicely-judged balance of slightly downtrodden and put-upon by the somewhat bossy Beverly, and one-upmanship towards the newcomers.
Vicky Binns and Calum Callaghan are also a joy as neighbours Angela and Tony. Angela is somewhat in awe of her better-off neighbours, drawn in by Beverly’s excessive friendliness and marvelling at her mod-cons, while Tony is taciturn and resentful, trying to make out they’re better than they actually are. The transformation in Angela when Tony leaves the room is palpable, as she revels in finding some freedom – but annoyed with Tony when it seems he has enjoyed his own bit of freedom while he’s been away too.
Then there’s neighbour Sue, possibly the best character in the entire play, who has been invited because her daughter Abigail is having a party next door. Rose Keegan is an absolute delight in the role, clearly anxious about her daughter while trying to make light of it, thoughtful and measured in all her conversation even when she has drunk more than enough of Beverly’s “little top-ups”.
Predating many similar TV classics of social ineptitude, the play has more than stood the test of time and this production does Leigh’s work credit. The script is a joy of course, but it’s not only about what is said but what is not said, and between them the cast delivers a masterclass in facial expression and reaction.
Highly recommended viewing.
Runs Until 26 January 2019 and on tour | Image: Contributed