Tuesday 29th January 2019 at The Grand Opera House, York.
Mike Leigh’s 1977 comedy Abigail’s Party is a beautifully preserved microcosm of seventies trends, etiquette and values. It’s also a very neat reflection of timeless relationship dynamics, making it ever relevant and entertaining – one look at the current housing market tells you that aspirational young couples parading their success for those a rung below on the ladder is not exactly worlds away from now. While on the surface providing a study of popular entertaining evenings of eras past, Abigail’s Party also delves into the dynamics within rocky relationships. After all, in a world of want and trends, when can we ever be satisfied or dare I say…happy?
The plot? Laurence and Beverley are set to spend their evening entertaining the neighbours. No, wait. Correction: Beverley is set to entertain guests this evening while her husband Laurence gets under foot and/or fails in all her expectations of him. From the moment poor Laurence arrives to interrupt his wife’s indulgent five minutes of ‘me time’, their relationship is comedy gold. Him hen-pecked and her irritated. Her pushy and him defiant. Him trying to shake off the jibes, her digging nails in harder…this won’t end well!
Jodie Prenger dominates as this ruler of the roost, Beverley, and she’s bloody fantastic. She has a faulty filter and an opinion on everything – and you had better agree with every one of them because you see, the trick with Beverley is simply to submit. Her Essex twang heightens the comedy of almost everything she says and her comic manner of speaking is the core strength of the character.
But Prenger’s performance shines in all areas, from the physicality to timing to delivery to cracking facial expressions and hilarious silent reactions. Beverley is also a constant and luckily, with Prenger in this central role, Beverley and all her loud monopolising ways are a welcome cornerstone to the production.
Daniel Casey’s take on Laurence is a perfect counter-part for this domineering wife. He does as he’s told for the most part and appeases and cajoles until he simply can’t force himself to carry on with such a charade for the entire evening. Poor Laurence doesn’t really get a look in when it comes to the chatter because his enthusiastic but bland contributions are simply too much for his bitter wife to stand…
Their clashes are about those tiny things which grate over time: his art choices, his preference for classical music and jazz over the hip contemporaries; his aversion to dancing; his love of leather bound books (presumably an aesthetic love rather than an intellectual one); his, well…his presence really…poor wee man!
Couple number two, Angela and Tony are only marginally better at veiling their evident underlying conflict. They’ve arrived after a ‘big dinner’ and it’s clear that an unseen event has caused something to be bubbling up under the big smiles and inane chatter. Vicky Binns’ Angela is the classic bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young up and comer. She has something to say about almost everything in Beverley’s fully functional, real-leather kitted out place and Beverley of course can’t get enough of Angela’s wide green-eyed eagerness.
What Binns does so beautifully here is capture the feigned ignorance of a person restricted by their status as guest. When you have to be on your best behaviour in company, how on earth do you go about venting very real emotions caused by that present company?
And while Binns’ optimism as Angela is unshakeable, Calum Callaghan’s Tony is a monosyllabic, sullen teen by comparison. He’s a joyless bugger prone to glaring and snapping and along with Laurence, the pair set out to show just how useless men can be at the facade of hosting and being a good guest.
Couple three is less of a couple and more of a divorcee, Sue, who is caught up in the evening only through the necessity of having to leave her house adult-free while her daughter, Abigail, hosts her own, very different kind of party. Rose Keegan perfectly captures the uncomfortable invisibility of the singleton in a couples’ world. She’s surrounded and constantly questioned and accosted but no one listens to her any more than they listen to their other halves, providing a particularly brilliant source of tragi-comedy.
Against this backdrop of Abigail’s party where youths are having a roaringly good time, the grown-ups make hilarious small talk (under the subtly crafted direction of Sarah Esdaile). With the addition of alcohol, each and all gradually begin to unravel both as individuals and couples.
As the the palpable tensions rise and frictions escalate, fuelled by booze, unfulfilled hopes and broken oaths, the comedy gets livelier and sharper. Beverley is shameless and no one seems brave enough to do anything about it. The blokes have formed their own mysterious silent war and all Angela can do is vent rage towards Tony as it simply would not do to show any disrespect to the hosts, no matter the extent of their actions.
This is a brilliantly observed social commentary which delivers on all of the very best features of domestic comedies. Much of the comedy relies on stereotypes of polite Britishness while simultaneously poking fun at those putting on airs as they climb the social and material ladder. What’s particularly good about this play is that for all that recognisable comedy fodder, it also provides a fascinating montage of relationship dynamics – friendships, acquaintances and romances – at various stages of conflict. Ever so slightly slow in places but rich in writing and central performance, Abigail’s Party is most definitely one to watch!
Abigail’s Party is presented by Ambassador Theatre Group and Smith & Brant Theatricals in association with Tulchin Bartner Productions and Julie Clare Productions. it runs at the Grand Opera House, York until February 2nd 2019 and you can get your tickets here. Following this run, the show will continue to tour and further information about dates and venues can be found here.
Note: I saw this show from the Ambassador Box – read about the Ambassador Experience at the Grand Opera House, York here!