Mike Leigh’s 1970s play Abigail’s Party has been called many things, not the least of which is “embarrassingly and gloriously timeless”. I always find it ironic that the profane and questionable characters that bother audiences are in fact the characters with whom we are all too familiar. This production is no different, and the results are hilarious!
The scene opens during Beverly’s preparations for her friendly neighborhood soiree. With a booming teenage party held next door, and new neighbours settling into the street, Beverly decides to play hostess and hold a civilised evening in the lounge. Nothing out of the ordinary; just a few drinks between friends. What unfolds is certainly a deviation from what one would expect at your average party, but despite being a train wreck – you can’t look away!
The set is superb and the early transformation invites us into Beverly’s home, creating an intimate atmosphere. The attention to detail is magnificent and extends right to the edge of the audience’s sight lines, ensuring unparalleled realism. The décor is unashamedly 70s chic, as are the clothes. If this show was any more 70s the Bee Gees themselves would be bursting onto the stage! For some, I’m sure this provides happy memories. For others, a cringe-worthy reminder of a bygone era!
As the ‘hostess with the most-ess’, Amanda Abbington’s Beverly is a delight to watch… when you’re not cringing! Giving Hyacinth Bucket a run for her money, she skillfully straddles the divide of endearingly clueless and morally ambiguous. Her blatant attempts to gain the affections of her neighbor’s husband would certainly be abhorrent; if her attempts weren’t hilarious! Abbington effortlessly carries the momentum of the piece and manages to keep the energy upbeat, while also delivering a level of vulnerability. Driving the role to the verge of caricature, she skillfully manages not to cross the line and maintains a sense of reality that results in a despairing conundrum for the audience – can we actually bring ourselves to like this woman? Oops, I think we already do!
Balancing Abbington’s vivacious Beverly is Ben Caplan’s Laurence, a character I still haven’t figured out. Caplan brings us a workaholic who appears to survive his marriage through the proficient use of selective hearing and indifference. Later moments, however, suggest that there is more to him; a vulnerability, and a touch of aggression that certainly give the audience something to consider.
Charlotte Mill’s Angela beautifully complements the comedic tones of Abbington’s Beverly, not competing for laughs, but playing in an entirely different space. We all know an Angela, we’ve all been to parties with an Angela, and the open nature that Mills brings to the character makes her impossible to dislike – irritating as she might be. The same can be said for Rose Keegan’s Susan who, in contrast to the comedic energy of the other two, brings a submissive and introverted presence to the stage. Awkward, easily influenced and painstakingly polite, Keegan has perhaps the most challenging task of grounding and humanising the piece. For much of the production I was waiting for the lid on her conservative façade to blow and was slightly disappointed that the script didn’t allow for it, however irrespective of that, she is easily accessible and relatable.
The most confusing character of all is Ciaran Owens’ Tony. Clearly mismatched with Mill’s Angela, Owens is the master of reservation. He provides little insight into his motivations and paints for us a detached suburban husband, yet starts to show a different skin as he slowly warms to Beverly.
A stark insight into the disconnect between the people we think we are and the people we are, Abigail’s Party is a delectably awkward and uncomfortably beguiling production. It’s easy to pass judgement on the larger than life characters before us, but on reflection, maybe these characters aren’t as far removed from our everyday reality as we’d like to think!
Review by Cassandra Griffin
It’s forty years since the appalling Beverly first put Donna Summer on the turntable, stacked a plate with little cheesy-pineapple ones, plied her guests with alcohol, cigarettes and Demis Roussos and slow-danced her way across the shag-pile into theatrical history.
The drinks party from hell begins when Beverly and estate agent husband Laurence invite round new neighbours, Tony and Ange, along with nervous divorcee Sue, jittery about the bash her teenage daughter, Abigail, is throwing up the road. As that party reportedly gets out of hand, this one too descends into chaos, and comedy, drama and tragedy combine into an iconic piece of theatre. Hilarious and horribly compelling, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party is an undisputed classic.
Theatre Royal Bath Productions presents
Amanda Abbington in
The 40th-Anniversary production of ABIGAIL’S PARTY by Mike Leigh
Directed by Sarah Esdaile
Little Green, Richmond TW9 1QJ
BOOK TICKETS FOR RICHMOND THEATRE