Tag Archives: Mike Leigh

Abigail’s Party

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 1 September

This new co-production between the Queen’s Theatre (now with a major renovation project in hand), Derby Theatre, Wiltshire Creative and le Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg slides Mike Leigh’s iconic 1970s drama east of London.

Director Douglas Rintoul is well served by designer Lee Newby as we enter the new-build home of estate agent Laurence (Christopher Staines) and his former beautician wife Beverly (Melanie Gutteridge). Her main evening drinks party guest is newcomer nurse Angela (Amy Downham) the not-so-trophy wife of former footballer Tony (Liam Bergin).

Also invited are middle-age, middle-class divorcée Susan (Susie Emmett) whose teenage daughter is holding the eponymous party. It’s a recipe for disaster amid the cheesy-pineapple sticks, nuts, olives and far too many gins’n’tonics. Disasters duly occur.

The hallmark of a theatre classic play is that it speaks as strongly to audiences who may not have been born when it premiered as to those like myself who saw the original production at the Hampstead Theatre. It does require a cast which can live up to it.

Gutteridge’s Beverly radiates bleached and toned blonde selfishness, happy to play off Bergin’s laconic Tony against an increasingly frustrated Laurence. She dominates the action, as Leigh intends. Staines builds the husband who can never satisfy his wife’s material demands into a figure of near-tragic proportion.

Poor Susan is the fish-out-of-water in this particular bowl; Emmett makes her increasing physical and mental discomfort subtly apparent while Downham witters away, apparently willing to be a foil for Beverly’s cattily “helpful” comments on her appearance.

Rintoul keeps the action at a brisk pace, while allowing us to appreciate the basic absurdity of Leigh’s characters. None of them are merely two-dimensional stereotypes, for all that they are each rooted in a particular trench of class and finding shovelling a way out of it difficult.

Four and a half-star rating.

Abigail’s Party runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 22 September with matinées on 6, 8, 13, 15, 20 and 22 September. A companion piece, Abi by Atiha Sen Gupta, plays between 4 and 22 September at 9.30pm on 4, 5, 8, 14, 20 and 22 September, at 4.30pm on 6 and 15 September and 5.30pm on 19 September.

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Abigail’s Party
reviewed in Norwich on 27 March

Mike Leigh’s play about the residents of a suburban London enclave is now 40 years old. Each revival brings a new and appreciative audience as well as returning admirers, ths proving that this particular social satire is one for all decades and all generations.

We may not want to acknowledge it aloud, but most of us can number at least a couple of Leigh’s characters in our aquaintance. Which is not bad going when you realise that there are only five people on stage, plus of course the offstage teenaged Abigail, who is throwing her increasingly boisterous parent-free party a few doors away.

Queen bee and lynch-pin of the whole affair is Beverly, a wife so mesmerised by her own two-dimensional façade that other people only exist to reflect her appearance, her tastes in music, home décor and social entertaining. Amanda Abbington has the measure of the part; from the moment we glimpse her arranging the room for her drinks party through the windows of Janet Bird’s dolls’ house set, Abbington presents the whole woman.

Dressed in a totally unsuitable white pleated dress, constantly slithering off one shoulder, Beverly makes a god job of upstaging first new neighbour Angela (Charlotte Mills), a nurse whose slightly too-girlish dress only accentuates her comfortable plumpness. Ciarán Owens is Frank, the disenchanted former footballer now computer operator who is natural prey for Beverly.

Both Rose Keegan as middle-class divorcée Susan, doing her best to bring up Abigail and Jeremy with some support from her architect ex-husband, suggests the woman who would love to put Beverly back in her proper place but is too polite to force the issue. when she does do so it is completely ineffectual.

You can see why Ben Caplan’s work-obsessed estate agent Laurence might find in Susan a more congenial spirit than in wife Beverly, though even he tries too hard and too obviously to clamber onto her guarded wavelength. Caplan times Laurence’s develpment as the evning wears on very subtly, from “heard it all before” mild irritation to the downright irascibility as the play reaches its climax.

Sarah Esdaile is the director for this Theatre Royal Bath Productions tour. Bird’s co-designers are Mic Pool (sound, which is very cleverly graduated as the evening wears on) and Paul Pyant (lighting). Blending deliberate articiality with the right degree of realism is a harder visual and audible task than an audience might imagine. I suspect that Abigail will be still throwing her party forty years from now. This production certainly doesn’t impede that progress.

Four and a half-star rating.

Abigail’s Party
runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 1 April with matinées on 29 March and 1 April. It can also be seen at the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 10 and 15 April.

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Abigail’s Party

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford on 7 October)

Mike Leigh’s searing dissection of 1977 England is now both a period piece and a play for all times, because its characters are truly people. Probably we all know go-getters, second careerists and socially ambitious neighbours. With luck, these don’t include a Beverly, in whose sitting-room the action of Abigail’s Party takes place.

Her guests for the evening include an established resident, Susan (Gailie Pollock) – whose teenage daughter is throwing the party of the title – and new neighbours nurse Angela (Natalie Caswell) and husband Tony (Matthew Bancroft). Former beautician Beverly is determined to be the queen bee in this particular hive; of course, queen bees have a lethal way with their mates.

Director Simon Anderson in this new Contexture production takes it all at a brisk pace with Tom Cliff’s extended set flanked on stage left by the pseudo-Georgian front door marked with its ominous number 13. Anderson is not afraid to put the sofa on which Angela, all girlish naïvité with a school-of-Laura-Ashley frock to match, and sensibly-clad Susan perch so uncomfortably facing the audience; we become flies on the fourth wall waiting for the inevitable to occur.

Charlotte Newton-John, sashaying around either the coffee-table or her guests in an ankle-length flame-coloured gown, her hair teased into a topknot of suspiciously bright curls, is an eye- and ear-riveting Beverly. Her “Don’t get me wrong” catch-phrase carries destruction every time she trills it. This is a performance to savour. It puts both Pollock and Caswell somewhat in the shade, however.

As monolithic and monosyllabic Tony, embarrassed by his wife’s gushing over Beverly’s taste in furnishings, Bancroft creates a realistic portrait of a man who will go his own way, regardless. Harassed estate-agent Laurence, juggling with clients’ demands and his wife’s constant commands so thinly veiled by a last-minute “please” gradually earns our sympathy as well as understanding. Stephen Cavanagh has the measure of the man as he finds something of a kindred spirit in Susan. By then, it’s all too late.

Abigail’s Party runs at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford until 13 October.

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