A masterclass in the behaviour of 1970s upwardly mobile new arrivals into a new type of lower middle class snobbery, Mike Leigh first put on a performance of Abigail’s Party at the Hampstead Theatre, London in 1977.
As is now Leigh’s famous way of working, the original show was made by Leigh and his actors from nothing; they devised it together and created the play from their improvisations. An incredibly daunting undertaking, then, for director Sarah Esdale to try to replicate the feeling of the original show, of which she has done a fantastic job.
This time around, Alison Steadman’s Beverley has been taken on by the marvellous Jodie Prenger; Beverley’s iconic voice and mannerisms are what make her so watchable, and Prenger has completely nailed the character. To get the same kind of feel as a Mike Leigh play, Sarah Esdale has worked with the actors in the same way as Leigh’s method device, helping give them ownership of their characters. The cast improvised what had happened before and for the two men during their offstage visit to the infamous party of Sue’s daughter Abigail. Sticking to the script for most of the action but also having this freedom to improvise helped give a more realistic depth and understanding.
Both Mike Leigh and Alison Steadman spoke to Sarah Esdale about the play beforehand, which gave the director more freedom and confidence to direct in her own way while keeping to the ethos of the original.
The stage set is extraordinary, designer Janet Bird firmly placing the play in a virtually identical set to the film version. All the 70s classics are proudly on show to give no doubt that Beverley and Laurence (Daniel Casey) are on the up; firmly stating their pride (just a little bit too hard) at their status in the rapidly growing new lower middle class.
New to the street in suburbia are a nurse, Angela and computer operator husband Tony (Vicky Binns and Calum Callaghan). Only married for three years and although excited by their new status as house owners - Angela especially so - there is an ugly tension teetering just below the surface. Sue (a terrific performance by Rose Keegan) is the subject of pity for hostess Beverley. A divorcee with two children, Sue is evidently of a different class entirely, much more refined. She is bullied and cajoledinto drinking far too much alcohol by Bev, who is so busy asserting her own values and oblivious to Sue’s inbuilt politeness and attempts to decline. Her pained expression and attempts to assert herself make for painful yet very funny viewing.
The hosts of the evening, Beverley and Laurence, each vy for superiority over the other. Their constant bickering and undermining of one another is excruciating to observe, both comedic and tragic almost every time one of them speaks. The pathos of this mismatched couple is plainly evident. Each person at the drinks soiree is in his/her own psychological bubble, attempting to assert their own authority at any given situation, each left frustrated as time and time again they fail to do so.
Abigail’s Party is a real theatrical treat, with phenomenal acting by all, though Jodie Prenger as Beverley is such a force she dominates the stage with her breathtakingly cruel yet hysterically funny comments. Although set in its obvious period, it is a true timeless classic as it is in the end about people as relevant today as when it was written forty years ago. British comedy at its painfully embarrassing best.
Showing at Grand Opera House York until Saturday. Click button below for tickets.BOOK NOW