Writer: Mike Leigh
Director: Sarah Esdaile
Reviewer: Lauren Humphreys
If ever there was a play that was well and truly burned into the memory of all those who saw it, Mike Leigh’s 1970s masterpiece, Abigail’s Party is it. There are few who haven’t seen the 1977 BBC Play For Today production of the stage play, who can’t recite a plethora of our leading lady Beverly’s famously barbed lines (16 million people watched the original broadcast alone): “Laurence…Angela likes Demis Roussos, Tony likes Demis Roussos, I like Demis Roussos, and Sue would like to hear Demis Roussos: so please, do you think we could have Demis Roussos on?” “Cheesy pineapple?” – the two words alone get a roar of laughter from the expectant crowd as does the moment when Beverly pops off to chill the Beaujolais. With Leigh’s then-wife Alison Steadman’s once seen (and heard), never forgotten performance so synonymous with the role, those that follow in her gold strappy sandalled footsteps invariably suffer in comparison.
It’s the dinner party from hell where the clearly bored, bitchy, utterly unhappy, suburban social climber Beverly, is hosting neighbours Angela and her husband Tony, and Susan, mother of the titular Abigail who’s having her first teenage party a few doors down. The evening descends into the most cringe-worthy example of social torture as Beverly demeans her uptight, reserved husband Lawrence, belittles and bullies both Susan and Angela, and tries to seduce neighbour Tony.
Jodie Prenger wafts around Janet Bird’s highly detailed brown and orange, sheepskin rugged, wood-clad walled set in a colour-co-ordinating Paisley patterned kaftan and eye-popping blue eyeshadow. Prenger manages to produce a fair impersonation of Beverly’s nasal whine but overall hers is a more low key, slightly less passively aggressive portrayal. While highly competent, it lacks a bit of the physical energy (and sharpness of timing) that would have truly made this gathering nerve-shredding. Daniel Casey is Lawrence, whose descent into utter contempt for his crass wife is very well-judged. TV soap veteran Vicky Binns’ Angela is a fawning sycophant to the older Beverly, who laps up every compliment while throwing thinly disguised barbs back at her young neighbour. Calum Callaghan’s monosyllabic Tony is an eerily accurate portrayal of a quietly abusive husband and Rose Keegan’s truly middle class Susan is perfectly pitched, every line is delivered perfectly on point.
It may feel to some that Abigail’s Party perfectly preserves in aspic an era in British social history, when class barriers were supposedly being broken down and the ‘upwardly mobile’ were well and truly on the rise. But, it also speaks at a deeper level of how far and how little women’s freedom has come in the 40+ years since the play was written.
Abigail’s Party is the perfect example of something so well-written, that it still has the power (in a very different world) to be hugely entertaining, decades on from its creation.
Runs until 9 February 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan