Abigail’s Party – Theatre
Carly Halse – Female Arts
It’s 1977 and Beverly is throwing a little party for her neighbours… The Play’s The Thing present Abigail’s Party.
Thanks largely in part to its highly successful televised appearance on ‘Play for Today’ in 1977, Abigail’s Party is a real stalwart of the British cultural canon. Even those who haven’t seen the play, or have merely glimpsed clips of the televised version, feel as if they are incredibly familiar with the world of Beverly’s front room and the events that occur there on the fateful night of young neighbour Abigail’s party.
As such, it is an incredible feat to pull off an interesting and nuanced production. Luckily, The Play’s The Thing have done just that. Director Rosemary Hill has managed to tug on the darker threads lurking in the text to provide us with a production that is enjoyable and wicked. Mike Leigh’s writing still zings after all these years and this entertaining comedy of manners is delightfully gloomy at times.
As always, mention has to made of regular The Play’s The Thing designer Kevin Jenkins. His perfectly constructed Seventies living and dining area – all geometric patterns, floral prints, and brown, brown, brown – is an utter delight. Set on an angle, you can tell the cast really enjoy romping through the set. There are some fun moments to be had with the staging here too; Beverly utilising the ill-placed sideboard and drinks cabinet every five minutes, Lawrence forcefully chewing on a sandwich alone at his giant 6-seater wooden dining table, Angela enviously rubbing the ‘beautiful’ brown leather sofa set.
Some very nice sensory touches were also used to great effect. Real cigarette and cigar smoke permeates the auditorium throughout, and Beverly’s cloying perfume spray help the audience to feel as awkwardly trapped in Beverly’s living room as the other characters.
The ensemble cast work hard to keep us toe-curlingly embarrassed as the evening unfolds. There’s a great sexual tension between Dawn Murphy’s languid Beverly and Liam Tims’ stoic Tony. One of the best parts of the production is where we are forced to watch the two start dirty dancing and indulging in some mutual bottom-groping, whilst Tony’s wife Angela (excellently played by Heather Johnson) gently fingers the optic light. Johnson really makes Angela her own and does a great job of delving slowly into drunkenness, before a crisis sends her soberly back into action.
Kerry Willison-Parry’s genteel Sue is both endearing and heart-breaking. Offered crisps, nuts, cheese and pineapple sticks, olives and endless drinks, she is burdened not only by snacks, but also her inability to say no and her insistence on good manners. Andy Watkins plays Lawrence with a fantastic creeping and burning intensity, and it is dastardly good fun to watch his decline as the action unfolds. Perhaps slightly more could have been made of the development of some characters, but overall the ensemble was well-cast and skilled.
A thoroughly enjoyable night out, The Play’s The Thing have given us another solid professional production of an incredibly well-known, and well-loved, play. Well, they do like to keep their guests happy…
Verdict - ★★★★
Abigail’s Party – The Play’s The Thing
Don your flares, get out that flowery shirt, put your platform shoes on – Beverley’s putting on a little drinks party for her neighbours while young Abigail blasts her own music party next door. Yes, it’s the Seventies and host Beverly is doing her best to attend to her guests, blurring the line thoroughly between caring for her guests and outright controlling them and creating much humorous mayhem. Husband Laurence struggles to adapt to Beverly’s whims and headstrong decisions, but can never win, creating more comic tension which finally flairs into near violence – so in love are they – although Beverley tells us several times that he’s just there, and married life is boring. This gives her an excuse to flirt with neighbour Angie’s husband – but only after she has found out he had been a professional footballer. The comedic friction is perfected with Susan, Abigail’s mother, sitting it out while teenage kicks unfold in her house next door. We can only feel she might have had an easier time if she had stayed with her daughter as Beverley plies her with drinks until she’s sick.
Rosemary Hill’s slick direction has adeptly revived this thirty eight year old play and by offering a sparkling production has made it not only witty, but with depth, and still very relevant to our times: the suburban male/female dissatisfaction, the status conscious attitudes, the controlling behaviour, the ridiculous small talk, all give it the space to entertain – but the clever direction allows us also to appreciate some of the pathos behind the facades that characters project. Clearly Rosemary identified this play as a wee little gem – a masterpiece – and has respected that.
Not least stunning is the set – a complete Seventies suburban front room with radiator, drinks cabinet, garish wall paper and carpet, standard lamp with a shade of clashing colours – all very modern for the time, and all finely placed at an angle to the audience, giving much scope for movement, but allowing even those in the back row to feel they are actually in the room.
How well Dawn Murphy develops Beverley, cleverly creating her own very convincing version with no trace of the Alison Steadman ‘type’ – not an easy task. The casting is perfect even though Tony has few lines – Liam Tims is always present, always thoroughly in character, keenly understating, but suppressing anger and the potential for violence, while nurse Angela (Heather Johnson) aptly tries to keep up with things and agree with her husband or Beverley whenever the opportunity arrives. Andy Watkins is thoroughly apt as Laurence, the middle-age-crisis husband and Kerry Willison-Parry as the long suffering Susan, mother to Abigail (who never actually appears!) plays it excellently as the only one with any kind of integrity and sense.
One can forgive writer Mike Leigh’s little rant at a recent awards ceremony where he berated various producers from the past who failed to financially support him because he did not work from scripts – but arranged scenarios and got actors to improvise – a system that works incredibly well for him. This, his first devised play is a gem, and has worn well. And his recent Mr Turner film has received much acclaim.
So a great production which continues to establish Rosemary Hill’s: The Play's The Thing as a tour de force in Milton Keynes. Few perhaps appreciate the time, effort, dedication and not least money, that goes into such productions, by so many people. We in MK must recognise that by getting our bums on seats at future performances of The Play’s The Thing – with all that talent and professionalism, we’ll always be entertained.
If you were born before 1970 then the Play's The Thing Theatre Company production of Abigail's Party will have been a trip down memory lane. If you were born after 1970 then it is everything your parents told you about the 1970's and then some.
The simple but beautifully designed set immediately places the audience in a bygone era to a time when wallpaper was garish and all furniture was teak from the sideboard come bookcase with its drop down leaf for serving drinks to the coffee table that was a must in any fashionable household. The small almost unnoticeable touches of slightly raggedy vinyl record covers, a white phone with a cord and separate mouth and ear as well as a drop down light over the dining table made the watcher feel that they were almost on the faux leather settee with the actors.
The story which centres around a drinks party for the neighbours is told brilliantly by all the actors. Beverley played by Dawn Murphy is a wonderful and typical 1970's keeping up with the Jones' type character who appears in a beautiful long green dress thereby setting herself above the other 2 female characters who turn up, in Angela's case, in a dress that somehow doesn't match her lipstick, as Beverley is keen to point out, and in Sue's case like she has just popped in for a chat.
The 1970's was a time of aspiration and this is clearly conveyed as the topics range from fitted carpets to the curves on the dining room chairs. It is this aspiration that drives Laurence an estate agent driven not only to work all hours but to want more and expect more from others. His barely disguised contempt for Tony who doesn't read much and is a computer controller is one example of this. Another is demonstrated in his heart stopping (literally) rant about Dickens, Shakespeare and finally Van Gogh and erotica.
The play contains undertones which would seem out of place today. The woman being kept in her place as happens to Angela is one example. The feeling sorry for Sue but at the same time judging her perhaps not in the most flattering light another.
Despite the scene never changing and the 5 actors for the most part being on stage the whole time the action never becomes stale or stilted. The comedy is controlled so that none of it is up roaresly funny (thereby resulting in the annoying scenario of missing the next line) but there is enough to keep the audience smiling throughout.
If you haven't seen this play yet then book immediately and take yourself back to a time when phones didn't always work and the Mp3 was yet to be imagined let alone invented.
Review of Abigail’s Party
A Small Mind
By some distance my favourite play never seen performed live before is Abigail's Party by Mike Leigh. It also very possibly might be "my favourite play" altogether. It is to me a perfectly judged and written piece which sublimely creates five vivid characters who generally hate each other (even those married to one another) and liberally tosses them into a melting pot of hostility, class struggle and sadness. Across its path we get simmering rivalries, high comedy and also at one point cleverly removing the males of the piece to have a perfectly placed woman's chitchat. It is to me, just perfect.
This opinion of course comes from just one version of the show, the 1977 (a good year) BBC TV production of the original Hampstead play, which included a career defining performance from Alison Steadman as Beverly and all but one of the original theatre productions cast. They all make the roles their own and indeed working with Mike Leigh at the time, they very much created the characters persona's. So we have a rather solid foundation to the characters through those individual performers, so how would new people in the roles come across? The opportunity to find out was to hard to resist, therefore when I found that The Play's The Thing Theatre Company was to perform it fifteen minutes train ride (and a little walk) away from me down in Milton Keynes. I had to make the effort to find out.
It was most certainly worth the effort as while it was clearly heavily influenced by that classic first edition (how could it not be), both the performances and production were of an extremely high standard. On first entering the theatre (and a gorgeous theatre it is too, including lovely comfy seats), we are presented with a clever spin on the room set. I am not sure if this is a standard, but the room is presented on the diagonal rather than flat on. This is a neat design and that as well as the lovely retro feel is a great credit to designer Kevin Jenkins. Also those famous album covers are all present (I understand loving recreated), so we have Demis and Tom in all their glory on the shelf.
The performances are of an equally high standard, starting with our lead Beverly played with cutting edge and sexual frisson by Dawn Murphy. She is excellent throughout and her suggestive remarks to the relatively silent Tony are wonderful. Tony is played with the correctly styled "Yeahs" by Liam Tims and remains for much of the play an enigma, with his true character only coming out in the second act. Andy Watkins as the pompous Laurence is wonderful also, with his best moments in particularly in his second act including his underlying diatribe against Tony, and of course that classic Shakespeare line that I love so much. He is also suitably heated in his conversation during those moments when Beverly and Tony are getting to know each other more.
Heather Johnson's Angela is some distance physically from her original incarnation, she is nowhere near plain enough and I missed those glorious seventies specs. However that highly irritating voice is performed to perfection and you can't help but feel sorry for her especially towards the end when things are given that grimmer edge. It does however feel like Johnson's Angela is a little tougher than the original. Finally we have the mother of the title character, Susan, played with suitable refinement by Kerry Willison-Parry. It is a suitably quiet role, but performed lovingly.
They are without question all wonderful performances which are done without the feel of the great weights of those epic first incarnations upon their shoulders. It must be a challenge and indeed brave to try to recreate classic characters which many will so associate with just one performer. However this was a wonderful production of for me an all time classic. Oh and just so you know, I can't stand olives.