Review: Abigail’s Party. Derby Theatre. (touring)

Examining the absolutely glorious set by Bek Palmer, I’m feeling serious vibes of nostalgia and excitement from the audience: the ugly drinks cabinet – a typical and highly coveted staple of a 70’s middle class household; the geometric wallpaper (still fetches retro prices now – google it); and finally the general obsession with orange and brown – confirmed when our lead character, Bev, sashays herself across the room wearing a divine dress, carefully distributing plates of cheese and pineapple before getting down to Donna Summer’s disco classic ‘Love to Love You, Baby’. Bev is about to host a drinks party and have a good time – she’s determined…even if it means she’s the only one that does.

We never meet Abigail. She’s having her own party, and, by the sounds of it, much more of a successful one. Abigail is the young daughter of Sue who has been turfed out of her own house, so she doesn’t cramp her daughter’s style. That leaves the unfortunate Sue free to attend this soiree hosted by her neighbours, Bev and husband Laurence, to introduce Richmond Street’s newest couple, Angela, and Tony.

What transpires is an evening of discomfort, ignorance, unhappy relationships, and huge amounts of gin. But don’t worry, we all have a great time watching it all unfold.

First written and directed by Mike Leigh in 1977, Abigail’s Party was hugely popular, striking a nerve and the funny bones with many. I was keen to see how relevant it all is today, and how one of the OG’s of cringe comedies would compare to all the millennial successors out there. Turns out, we don’t need various locations and outlandish situations – everything we need is right here, in real time, in one scene. Don’t we miss the good old days??

Bev’s party is purely a vehicle for her to show off her various browns and oranges to – as she views it – less fortunate neighbours. Sue is clearly too agreeable, patient, and polite to flatly refuse to talk about things that make her uncomfortable (such as her divorce) and new friends, Ang and Tony, are not quite to Bev’s standards; they live in smaller house for a start – although that doesn’t deter her from flirting outrageously with ‘Tone’ right in front of is naive wife, played by a fabulous Alice De-Warrenne.

As Bev micromanages the entire evening, plying her guests with drinks they don’t want, forcing cigarettes upon them they don’t need, her marriage to the short tempered and neurotic Laurence unravels into what we’re lead to believe is a typical evening in the Moss household. This is the era before social media – when you had to have parties to show off, rather than voraciously posting fake smiles on Facebook and leaving out anything that could be remotely interpreted as ‘I actually have a shit life’.

A character like Bev is a real gift for any talented actor, and while Michael Cabot’s candid and naturalistic production gives us the same domineering, egocentric Bev that Alison Steadman so famously crafted in the original TV production, I am loving Rebecca Birch’s portrayal. She conveys Bev’s immaturity, selfishness, and sheer delusion with every sip of a drink and slur of the word – it’s not that I feel sorry for her, but she is a monster of self-entitlement; a master of her own disaster I hate to love.  

Tom Richardson’s Laurence is a wonderful weight of high-strung, morose snobbery. A stressed individual skating between only just tolerating his wife and straight up smacking her one. I like him a lot less than Bev, and I’d hate to be married to him, but the comedic ways he handles the undue pressures of a simple party is a sight to see.

Tony (George Readshaw) is a monosyllabic creature but doesn’t quite land with me. He demonstrates genuine contempt towards his wife, but I feel there’s more room to explore an undercurrent of menace. It was inferred but lacked frisson.

Alice De-Warrene’s Angela is a nuanced performance, full of subtle shifts in tone. Innocent and unsophisticated with a knack of appearing too dim, when the evening culminates, her nursing instincts manage to take full command over the 347.3 units of alcohol she’s consumed. And she does a great job at acting drunk – that’s talent!

Divorcee Sue, played with an understated elegance by Jo Castleton embodies the perfectly lovely woman left feeing adrift after a divorce. Vulnerable with a lack of confidence and two children, in 1977 she’s just taken for granted as someone who’s a bit of a failure, as opposed to someone who has the opportunity, freedom and ability to start again on her own terms.

I’ve always understood Mike Leigh’s assassination of the middle class to be quite visceral, and his lack of sympathy for them undeniable – clearly represented here in his treatment of Bev, Laurence and Tony compared to the sympathetic way he’s approached Sue and Ang.   

Content wise I don’t think it’s a funny script, rather the humour depends on how the actors interpret it, the physical and facial expressions rather than their words. The funniest moments for me were Rebecca Birch’s diverse ‘come hither’ glares to the expressionless Tony climaxing with ‘that dance’. Well, that and Angela’s intimate moment with some hula hoops (still a relatively new and exciting snack back in 1977!)

And so, with all this going on over at the Moss’, we can hear the next generation – Abigail and her friends – having a far more civil night, without the grownups ruining it with their tantrums. To be fair it sounds like it was just these five who weren’t invited.

Abigail’s Party runs until 29th April. Enjoy it with a gin.


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