Writer: Mike Leigh
Director: Sarah Esdaile
Reviewer: Pete Benson
At the opening of Abigail’s Party, we are outside a 1970s suburban house looking in through the window creating the feeling that we are voyeurs. The window flies out, the house opens up, revealing a sitting room with a blond wood and faux leather furniture décor. The larger than life Beverly is alone dancing and drinking in anticipation of the arrival of guests.
A Mike Leigh play is a challenge for any director because Leigh’s modus operandi is to remove the barriers between writing and rehearsing, between the preparation of an actor’s role and directing. This, however, is not a process open to any actors and directors restaging Leigh’s original work. This social comedy’s exquisite character interplay is apparent but, at times, in this production, the actors don’t always fully inhabit the skin of real-life people. The five characters joust and parry as they play their social games vying to say the right thing and hold the correct opinion.
Rose Keegan as Sue is the most convincing player but perhaps has the easiest job with her introverted, mousy but socially superior character. She is unable to say no to her host’s constant offerings of food, drink and advice, all of which we see are patently unwelcome. However, Jodie Prenger’s determined hostess, Beverly, is utterly oblivious to Sue’s desires forcing her to smoke and drink until she vomits. Prenger has the most difficult task as the proactive centre of a growing storm. She is funny with great comic timing but her character occasionally crosses into caricature, this is a fine line to walk.
Thrown into the mix are the 2 other guests, new neighbours Angela and Tony, played by Vicky Binns and Calum Callaghan. Tony is at first a quiet man of few words who seems uncomfortable in this environment. As the drink flows and Beverly starts to flirt outrageously with him, we see a potentially dangerous undercurrent in him Callaghan skilfully plays a pent-up fury in Tony, occasionally letting it fly. Binns’ Angela goes on a drink-fuelled journey from a weak guileless woman to a take charge decisive angel of mercy. Binns’ greatest challenge is to disco gyrate along with Beverly’s husband, Laurence, who is trying to slow-dance. She is very funny but do we quite believe the truth of the moment?
Laurence and Beverly snipe at each other from early on. This only grows exponentially as their diametrically opposed social mores clash as they play their game of one-upmanship with increasing volume and fervour. Daniel Casey has great fun with Laurence’s aspiration for what he thinks are the finer things in life. With desperate pride, he shows off his volumes of leather-bound Dickens and Shakespeare which, he assures Tony, can’t be read.
Leigh’s method generates much character back story which we will never be privy to, but occasionally it teases us. What happens at Abigail’s party across the road which has changed Laurence and Tony’s relationship so much? Does Tony hit his wife? How does a professional footballer end up as a data entry clerk? The play is multi-layered and under the surface is a lot of subtlety which this cast is more than able to exploit.
The set is technically fabulous; the lighting, however, is not. Upstage there are dim areas and sporadic large distracting shadows are thrown up the walls as actors move around. It also takes a while to become accustomed to the glare of the onstage practical lights.
This play is a British classic and although a period piece the humanity exposed with all its prejudices, foibles, and aspirations is just as true today as it was forty years ago. The characters make us cringe, they make us laugh and very occasionally we feel sorry for them too.
Runs Until 23 March and on tour | Image: Contributed