Review: Abigail’s Party

Date: 27/03/2019

It’s impossible to hear an elongated, Sloane-y Aaaaange or Lau-rence without instantly recalling Alison Steadman as Beverley in Abigail’s Party – Mike Leigh’s excruciating tragic-comedy of manners and class.

But in this new touring production Jodie Prenger goes a long way to making the role her own. It’s perhaps a little broader, rather more openly comedic – but it’s hard to play against an audience that laughs at some of the appalling behaviour on stage as five aspirational middle-class 30-somethings come together for a boozy-do none will forget.

Prenger is deferential to Alison Steadman but adds a dash of Peckham amid the Romford suburbs. Her Bev glides around the stage – her floral maxi dress and slinky body language making her a cross between a hovercraft and trifle – dispensing gin, cigarettes and barbs. She’s as pitiful as she’s monstrous.

It’s also initially hard not to see Janine Duvitski as the gauche Ange, but to kick against those long-standing associations would have been fruitless and awkward. Instead Sarah Esdaile’s production embraces the lore of Abigail’s Party – cheese hedgehogs, G-plan furniture and Demis Roussos – while making the toxic relationships the core.

There are powerful dynamics between the two couples here: Bev and Laurence drip with contempt for one another’s airs and graces – or lack of them; Tony can’t abide his wife Ange, a hostility to which she is completely oblivious.

Meanwhile smilingly shy neighbour Sue (Rose Keegan), whose titular daughter is enjoying a rowdy party nearby, is repressed to the point of nullification, bar a predilection for essaying her minimalist comments with a thrust of the head. All are tested to the limits by the preening, selfish and controlling Beverly.

Abigail’s Party remains a captivating portrait of social anxiety of nuclear proportions, wielded and weaponised by one of theatre’s great, tragic monsters.

There are many, many laughs to be had in Abigail’s Party but at the heart of it are five desperately unhappy people – it conveys a sadness that’s almost unbearable. Perhaps we might have seen more of this.

When Tony barks aggressively at Ange, when we hear he won’t let her drive the car – or when Laurence and Beverly appear almost close to blows – it largely elicits laughs, as if the audience are enjoying an out-and-out farce. A little more room to breathe might have brought out the dark undercurrents in this Essex backwater.

Nonetheless, the cast do a superb job. Calum Callaghan as ex-footballer Tony is a picture of brooding menace – not violent, explains wife Ange, merely… “nasty”. And despite Ange’s gaucheness, Vicky Binns imbues her with humanity. At the play’s conclusion she’s the adult in the room.

Poor Laurence (Daniel Casey), the put-upon husband of Bev, unravels over the course of the play into a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown – and more besides. It’s a performance that convincingly reflects all the memorably exhausted men of period sitcoms.

The play, of course, is Beverly’s and rests on the leading lady. This production of Abigail’s Party is in safe hands with Prenger. It remains a winning, captivating and uncomfortable portrait of social anxiety of nuclear proportions, wielded and weaponised by one of theatre’s great, tragic monsters.

Much is made of the politics of Mike Leigh’s 1977 play. Thatcherism was on the horizon as Brexit is now – and the social aspirations, pop obsessions and culture wars in Abigail’s Party remain in the ascendant.

Suffice to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Abigail’s Party
Liverpool Playhouse
Until 30 March