FringeReview UK 2019
Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party is directed by Sarah Esdale in this new in-house touring production by ATG with Smith & Brant Theatricals. Featuring Janet Bird’s meticulously inviting set, Paul Pyant’s lighting is horribly good and Mic Pool’s sound goes beyond anything even Beverly dreamed. Lucy Cullingford’s intricate movement directions climax at the denouement. Till January 19th. Consult website for tour dates.
In 1977, some TVs still had their colour turned up loud. So it’s appropriate Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party in this new in-house touring production by ATG with Smith & Brant Theatricals, directed by Sarah Esdale should reflect that pixillated classic. From Alison Steadman’s appalling TV Beverly everything here is accentuated, not least Jodie Prenger in that role. That should be down to shrinking Sue the architect’s nice ex-wife (she naturally doesn’t have a career) though that’s a different scale of acting from Rose Keegan’s contained, liberal watchfulfulness. But of the class of this production there’s no doubt at all. Starting its run at the Theatre Royal Brighton, it’s already bedded down.
What makes this a painful perennial, one you should see, particularly in this tight, accentuated production? It’s painfully funny, but beyond some of us wincing at how we lived in the decade that taste forgot lie the terrible rifts opened in any forcing-house, and the future tearing away at it. Host Beverly cracks the whip like another 1970s play – Absurd Person Singular – where party becomes prison. And everyone’s scarred.
This isn’t Beverly’s party, and the title’s a shift of genius. It’s outside where life goes on, teenagers getting it on. Go outside and you come back wet like Tony. Here it’s dissected. Abigail’s the daughter of the unhitched member of this quintet, Sue. Divorced from an architect immediately suggests that slot in Alan Ayckbourn’s 1972 Absurd Person Singular where three couples interact over three evenings. If it’s a kind of answer, it matches that play’s brilliance and touches even darker chords.
Whilst Ayckbourn’s rich banker couple are eliminated, Leigh and his cast leave professional-class Sue divorced from her architect though with children, and contractor Sidney and his wife fit Laurence and Beverly; except it’s Beverly cracking the verbals. Abigail’s Party brilliantly suggests not simply womens’ agency and those who’ll vote for Mrs T, but however some might sneer, the beginnings of liberation.
It’s not something Vicky Binns’ nurse Angela and ex-Crystal Palace player-cum-computer-operator Tony (Calum Callaghan) understand anything about, till the end when Angela’s profession and perhaps her husband’s respect effect a turnaround. Aren’t they part of the future? It adds a new strata to suburban living, not essayed in Ayckbourn. And its question-marks you can imagine in sans-serif black on an orange background.
Janet Bird’s meticulously inviting set with a raked tongue ‘n groove ceiling with spotlighting suggests a show-home for this aspiring estate agent and thrusting wife, not a home, even with the ‘erotic’ framed print banished to the bedroom by Beverly’s husband Laurence. Or of course the food. There’s one of those units sporting hi-fi records and spirits bottles which occludes the room behind but not the equally suggestive green-fitted kitchen built stage right. The lounge revels in a claustrophobia of orange, beige three-piece and pouffe with scarlet fibre light.
Paul Pyant’s lighting is horribly good too and inevitably with Donna Summer, Dennis Roussos, Elvis and ominously Beethoven 5 blaring at key moments Mic Pool’s sound goes beyond anything even Beverly dreamed to brighten the ears of the gods, and anyone in them. That doesn’t even cover the party and siren sounds outside. Even at the start there’s a brush of traffic. By Beethoven, and spectacularly at the end, we’re looking through the sound to Lucy Cullingford’s intricate movement directions. I’d forgotten so much happens after the denouement, which I’ll not spoil.
Esdale’s consulted closely with Leigh and Steadman to avoid trying to sidestep the latter’s creative voice and at the same time make bold choices t go darker, partly by loking at later Leig films. Beyond this though Esdale touches on what makes this paly – lie Chekhov so much a time capsule – resonate more the more you leave its period detail intact.
Each marriage is at a different stage of disintegration, perhaps. Sue’s divorced. Abigail seems set to ditch Laurence, since he’s sexually past his sell-by. Angela and Tony discover their unreflective roles taken apart. So Prenger’s Abigail is more physically menacing, substantial not just sexy, more blatant, perhaps. She’d be a force of de-naturing if she weren’t so natural. We’ve all known Beverly in softer colours but same leopard spots.
Esdale’s worked through what happens offstage, days in lives, and it shows. Daniel Casey’s fine Laurence really does look as if he’s endured a day buying and selling (his manner wholly different to vendor and buyer) so his arc of winding frustration ratchets with audible clicks. The brilliant cruelties bandied between him and Beverly reach a point of defeat in the way Prenger deals with a knife, with one disdainful finger. The battle over the records again becomes something akin to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Casey’s Laurence though is someone who laments his lack of creativity, reveres culture and aspires, hopelessly, to Sue’s level, as Laurence sees it. There’s space here for Laurence’s mix of genuine feeling and snobby one-ups. He shares a dance with sophisticated Sue – whose Beaujolais, flourished by Beverly at empty-handed Angela, gets fridged. after all Laurence and Sue are the only ones who love olives – the olive status throughout is one of those minute joys touched with brilliance here. Laurence wants to share Van Gogh and Beethoven. Laurence is differently loud, but as weird as his office suit as his casual.
Angela’s literalness her gormless warm admiration and lack of awareness of how she’s been treated translates as someone who knows deep down only too well. Binns suggests someone who by the end of the party knows better. Tony’s ticking frustrations seem only partially expiated. A man whose talent expired before he was twenty-one bristles with rage and sexism: Callaghan brings out a simmering vicious streak. To the excited Beverly who’s almost disappointed he’s not yet been violent, he finally responds in a way that tells us all we need to know about a man who till now can think only graphically, in football, computers, sex – and here Angela has to leap on him. Yet in a crisis he realizes Angela’s worth.
Keegan’s containment, her sense of having drifted to a class she faintly disdains is beautifully wrought, too easy to miss. Her condescension, even gratitude towards Laurence for at least recognizing this is a subtle as her understated noes get trampled on every time by Beverly who forces so much gin down her she explodes with it to brief humiliation. Her status as someone who lost a husband to another woman, can’t refuse being thrown out of her own house by her fifteen-year-old daughter for a party, every aspect of her being judged at another, registers as someone who knows how to endure a scene. Entitlement and manners she feels, get her through till we finally see a little steel.
Prenger though powers the narrative. You realize the swish of relief when she’s briefly gone, so powerfully does she suck in the oxygen, from her oppressive bonhomie, to female bonding-as-dominatrix to a little more with Callaghan’s briefly dazzled Tony. Her sudden lashings out and the way she’s suddenly deflated is visible here.
As a study in relations this hasn’t dated, since terms of engagement as with endearment merely shift. Sue might have to work, Angela be allowed to drive and take more initiatives, yet the dynamics remain as hardy as ever. We just think we’re armed with better taste, because we’re pastel monsters, not orange ones. This is a superb revival; its tinted mirror keeps burnishing.