Ultimate party girl or one of UK theatre's most tragic heroines?
REVIEW: Abigail's Party
Normally to start a review talking about the wallpaper on set would be a sign the play wasn’t up to much.
But the graphic, swirly giant squares that make up the entire back wall of the set in Abigail’s Party at Eden Court this week is a celebration of all things 70s suburban style from the London Classic Theatre Company’s designer Bek Palmer.
And that’s one of the most important things about this glorious black comedy, it’s all about the time it comes from and echoes our own. Everything from the leather couch to favourite paintings come into the conversation of the two couples and a single mum who come together for what heroine Beverly hopes will be a sophisticated evening of drinks and fun.
In fact, it turns out to be an edgy, but nearly always hilarious look at how couples play, that turns darker than anyone expects.
Laurence (Tom Richardson) and Tony (George Readshaw) subtly handle a power struggle between themselves, monstrously over-the-top hostess Beverly (Rebecca Birch) is keeping up appearances over the nibbles, olives and Beaujolais. Tony’s missus, the whiny-voiced treasure Angela (Alice De-Warenne) is a wannabe Beverly. And Sue (Jo Castleton)? Well, she is a separated mum seeking temporary refuge from her wild teen daughter Abigail’s party down the road.
It takes a matter of minutes of the play starting to get a handle on the existing tensions between Beverly and her workaholic estate agent husband Laurence. Bev has given her orders to Laurence, to bring beers and get changed before the guests arrive. But Laurence is hellbent on tracking down a missing house key for a showing, willing to head out into the night to track it down, Bev’s party very much second on his list of priorities.
“You’re going to kill yourself Laurence!” Beverly shouts, while we get to witness two funny phone conversations between her husband and the invisible clients at the other end of the phone. Tom Richardson has fun showing off Laurence’s schmoozy house-selling side and helping the audience keep up with an unfolding situation with the other client who has gone off with the key.
A glimpse into Bev’s frustrations with her husband comes when Angela and Tony appear and Beverly ogles the strong, silent Tony with a twinkle in her eye.
“He’s got a firm handshake, doesn’t he!” she tells Angela, talking in the third person about her chosen target for some outrageous flirting to come.
“I sometimes think a little row adds a spark to a relationship,” the hostess comments later, heralding the laughs watching Beverly’s attempted seduction of Tony, and Laurence’s increasing humiliation and stress witnessing her performance.
But with women’s liberation referred to a couple of times in the play, one of the sea changes unfolding in Britain in the 70s, you see how a woman like Beverley, hinting at her beauty counter job now in the past, might not be satisfied with a domestic role at home. Particularly as she reveals how children might not be for her.
“I wouldn’t actually like to have them. All that breastfeeding and changing nappies!”
The divide between Beverly and Laurence is at the core of the playwright, later film director Mike Leigh’s story.
Is class and laughing at it, what makes Abigail’s Party tick, as many believed at the time it was such a hit? That's part of the fun, watching it and trying to decide for yourself. It also proved fascinating to chat about with others during the interval and afterwards.
Maybe the play shows its age a little bit in the pace of the comedy unfolding in the first half, where we are getting to know the characters, based on Leigh’s signature improvisation by his original actors. But things speed up in the second half with the cast turning in towering performances as a group when the cocktail hour fades out and life gets serious.
And it is hard not to be left wondering – Beverly, ultimate party girl or one of UK theatre's most tragic heroines?
This is the play you'll still be talking about at Christmas...
More by this authorMargaret Chrystall