Writer: Mike Leigh
Director: Sarah Esdaile
Reviewer: Simon Topping
A new touring production of Mike Leigh’s classic comedy of manners, Abigail’s Party, opens in Brighton to a warm reception from a welcoming audience, whose demographic is predominantly fifty plus.
From the off laughter fills the auditorium, as we take a trip down memory lane. The stunning period set (wonderfully designed by Janet Bird) transports the gathering directly to the late 1970s; chintzy wallpaper, beige seating, spider plants, a small cocktail cabinet and a record player (which are making somewhat of a comeback) dominate the space.
Knowing giggles ring out as the throng are introduced to Beverly (fabulously played by Jodie Prenger) dancing around the room to soft disco music in a sumptuous and colourful period dress, cigarette hanging from her mouth while preparing cheese and pineapple sticks; a scene which epitomises the period exactly.
Beverly is, of course, throwing a dinner party. The guests include the new couple to the street, Tony (Calum Callaghan) and Angela (Vicky Binns) as well as Sue (Rose Keegan) escaping her daughter Abigail’s party over at her house. Beverly’s uptight and social-climbing estate agent husband Laurence (Daniel Casey) is there also, much to Beverly’s annoyance.
A lack of any substantial food, free-flowing drink and a mix of classes at the soiree add to the already palpable tension between Beverly and Laurence as the audience discover the host’s dissatisfaction with her partner’s shortcomings; frustrations which are voiced increasingly loudly the more alcohol is consumed.
Every new performance of this piece has a tough act to follow as the original television play in 1977 was watched by over 16 million people and gained the affection of the nation. In particular, Alison Steadman constructed the ultimate Beverly from which all others are bound to be compared. However, here, under Sarah Esdaile’s direction, the adept, able and funny cast manage to throw off comparison to create their own piece of comedy gold.
Prenger, as Beverly, leads the way. Her portrayal of the overbearing hostess, trapped in the sexless marriage is genuinely funny and as the character falls deeply into inebriation, Prenger’s performance becomes more richly grotesque and fun to watch; she performs some fabulous clowning and has an insistance when it comes to topping up a glass of booze that has the audience crying with laughter.
Prenger is supported by a fabulous cast. Casey as Laurence manages to capture a perfect combination of pent up fury and impotence as his wife openly cuckolds him as the evening continues. Binns gives a peppy and spirited performance as the wide eyed new comer to the street and Callaghan is great as the borish Tony; his more intimate scenes with Prenger resulting in howls of laughter from the audience, as well as a cringe or two.
Keegan also equips herself well as the very idiosyncratic Sue, as she becomes increasingly worried about her daughters party over the evening, Leigh’s timing of Sue’s lines ensures she is an odd and compelling character to watch, Keegan puts her own stamp on the role and ramps up the weirdnesss in a delightful way.
Mike Leigh’s archetypes have stood the test of time, where the decor and choice of nibbles have not. The script shines and the bathos hits theaudience in a deeply resonanting place, but, it is the performance from this engaging cast that make this particular adaption of Abigail’s Party well worth the ticket price.
Runs to 19 January 2019 | Image: Contributed