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Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh at Park Theatre

Sue has thrown up, Angie’s marriage is in tatters, and Abigail remains blissfully unaware of the calamities that take place at number 13 Richmond Road. The cult classic television show that was once an iconic piece of theatre returns to its theatrical origins in this new production of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party.

Abigail's Party - Credit Christian Davies.
Abigail’s Party – Credit Christian Davies.

From start to finish, the comedy of manners infects the room with awkwardness, discomfort and painful exchanges. Vivienne Garnett (Director) has crafted this atmosphere to a vibrantly entertaining effect. At this point, I would usually detail the plot’s premise, but without spoiling the events that occur, the story is relatively insignificant; very little happens. Beverly is having some friends over for drinks after work while Abigail has a party next door. The “drama” is all found within slights and snide remarks, seductive looks and bitter comments.

The plot functions in an unusual way, perhaps that is as a result of it being devised out of improvisation originally; it acts as a washing line upon which unhappy lives are hung out to dry.

Abigail’s Party is a tricky play to put on. It is beloved by many and so synonymous with Mike Leigh’s original production and has never reached the same heights since. This production does capture the same comedic unease and palpable tension. At times there is a repetitive tendency and mild predictability. For the most part, this is exercised to create continuity and playfully draw out the discomfort.

The design (Beth Colley & Neil Gordon) is excellent; Abigail’s Party is viscerally 1970s, and this play has a brilliantly mid-century modern look. This, combined with a soundtrack (Joe Pilling) of Elvis, Demi’s Roussas and Fleetwood Mac, tells us exactly where we are. The strict realism employed by the play and Vivienne Garnett’s direction demands a convincing set, and the designers have indeed met the challenge.

Performances are good all-round; they each capture a very distinct character we have met a hundred times. Beverly (Kellie Shirley) is depressingly aspirational, Tony (Matt Di Angelo) is convincingly desperate to be anywhere but there, and Angie (Emma Noakes) shines as the ‘frigid’ and slightly sad nurse who is sidelined by Beverly’s self-centred motivations.

All in all, Garnett has captured the wittiness of Mike Leigh’s play, and at times it is executed to hilarious effect. It does not do anything new, and there was certainly room to push the social commentary and satire, but for the most part, it is an engaging comedy of errors that drives home the discomfort and painfully awkward interactions to great effect.

4 stars

Review by Tom Carter

Mike Leigh’s iconic comedy-drama returns to the London stage with former EastEnders star Kellie Shirley playing Beverly, and Ryan Early (Lee Bryce in The Archers) playing her angst-driven husband Laurence. The 1970s comedy of manners, full of new-found suburban pretensions and social aspirations, was a huge hit when it premiered at the Hampstead Theatre, and the TV adaptation has been voted as one of the greatest British TV programmes by both industry professionals and the public.

Beverly and estate agent husband Laurence are happily ensconced and living the dream in suburbia. They know what records to play, what art prints to buy and what wine to drink. And Beverly just can’t resist the temptation to spread her knowledge and help improve the lives of their neighbours, Tony, Angela and Abigail’s Mum, Susan. What better way to help out than to invite them all for drinks and titbits?

Company information
Directed by Vivienne Garnett
Written by Mike Leigh
Set design by Beth Colley
Lighting design by Pip Thurlow
Costume design by Neil Gordon

Cast
Kellie Shirley, Ryan Early, Emma Noakes, Barbara D’Alterio

Listings information
10th November – 4th December
Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP
https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/

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