A flawless cast breathe new life into an old Mike Leigh classic, making this 1970’s soiree from hell unmissable, writes Holly Georgeson.
There aren’t many people unaware of ‘Abigail’s Party’, the classic 1977 Mike Leigh play about a monstrous hostess and her tetchy, workaholic husband hosting a disastrous soiree for a few select neighbours. Such was the popularity of the piece, first seen at the Hampstead Theatre before a TV film version was screened to 28 million viewers, that it catapulted its leading lady Alison Steadman to stardom, saw Greek singer Demis Roussos (mentioned in the play) ascend the music charts, and thousands of fans worldwide hold their own parties where the film is played and the gin flows like water. Devised completely from scratch using Leigh’s now famous improvisational techniques, the play takes a swipe at the bourgeois, middle-class suburban lifestyle – the ‘nouveau riche’ – but also hints at the loneliness and tedium of each character and their everyday routines. Everyone has their favourite moment: when Beverly cheerfully announces she’s popping a bottle of Beaujolais into the fridge or seduces Tony to ‘Forever and Ever’; Laurence’s manic rants about Van Gogh or Dickens Complete Works; Angela’s inappropriate bopping; Sue throwing up; the chaotic final minutes – not to mention the abundance of ‘cheesy-pineapple ones.’ The play found its way into the public consciousness and is regularly revived, although in the claustrophobic setting of the Alma Tavern it works supremely well, with every tiny glance, movement, or inflection under scrutiny, and breathing new life into the characters and situation. We, as an audience, feel invited to the party, and experience every toe-curling second at close quarters.
Anna Friend’s gloriously intimate and flawlessly cast production for the in-house company, Schoolhouse, is one of the finest renderings of the play I have ever seen, alive to the rich sense of uncomfortable humour but also the vicious power struggles and forced geniality of the guests. A beautifully detailed set – complete with cheese plant, pineapple ice bucket, and lava lamp – perfectly evokes the era and while the staging remains natural and fluid, this is a production unafraid of stillness and silence. There are moments where one is weeping with laughter, only to be undercut by an icy retort or shift in control which unsettles the mood but is never once overplayed.
Friend also takes on the mammoth challenge of Beverly, the aspirational, shallow hostess who gently bullies her guests, plies them with booze, and shamelessly flirts with another married man to rile her husband. Luckily, although retaining her grating, whining voice, Friend is not a carbon copy of Steadman but puts her own marvellously funny, vivacious stamp on the iconic role, while also managing to successfully highlight Beverly’s feelings of inadequacy and isolation through her vulgarity and brutal honesty. She drives the play, particularly in the first half, and expertly so, comically straddling that fine line between cringingly clueless and morally abhorrent; her portrait of this formidable character always well-pitched and infectiously energetic. The ever watchable Adam Elms, in a first-rate performance, not only teases out all the facets of her stressed estate agent husband, Laurence, more than any actor I’ve previously seen but is also sublimely funny and tragic in equal measure. What Elms emphasises is the inherent snobbery and bigotry of a sad and unfulfilled man constantly belittled publicly by his wife and his pomposity in attempting to keep up appearances; he is also utterly convincing as events spiral out of his control and builds wonderfully to a sudden conclusion, which raised shocked gasps from the audience. Elms’ and Friend’s splendidly combative spark contrasts well with Jennifer Jope and Ryan Gilks, as Angela and Tony, whose marital woes slowly uncover themselves as the evening begins to unravel and Angela’s tongue becomes ever looser with every drink. Jope’s dippy, wittering, all-too-honest nurse is delightful in her insensitivity, inane chatter, and questionable dance moves (her boogeying to slow jazz with Elms is a particular highlight), before revealing a hidden strength and calm when most necessary. Her gawky physicality is used to great effect, especially as the alcohol takes a hold; her head lolls, the cheeky grin widens, and the eyes glaze over. Gilks is an imposing presence as Tony, the monosyllabic former Crystal Palace midfielder who winces every time his wife opens her mouth and finds himself subjected to Beverly’s unsubtle advances. Squirming and quiet to the point of rude, whereas Gilks cleverly suggests Tony’s unhappiness and vulnerability lies beneath a menacing and almost emotionless exterior, Diane Lukins’ Sue, who completes the quintet, a timid buttoned-up divorcee suggests hers stems from boredom and her unruly daughter, Abigail, of whose raucous party we get vivid images throughout. Lukins’ character study is excellent; a quiet, gentle exercise in less-is-more, a poor, polite, and unsuspecting woman out of her depth, ruthlessly wound up and almost drowned with gin until she vomits. The chemistry between this ensemble indicates an ease and trust absolutely imperative for a play such as this; if they haven’t all been working with each other for years, I would be extremely surprised.
The question begs: is this a period piece? I would plump for yes, casual misogyny vying with political correctness and wife-swapping for attention (not to mention candelabras and Donna Summer) but its chief themes centring around class, social anxiety, and life behind the net curtains of suburbia, are timeless. Leigh’s knack for structure and sparkling dialogue, coupled with Friend’s sharp and pacy direction are, unlike Beverly and Laurence, a match made in heaven, and certainly give the original a run for its money. And it remains as fresh and funny as ever. With any luck, this exquisite production will return to Bristol and then tour and tour and tour; it certainly deserves to… Don’t you agree with me, Ang? Yeah? Great…
***** – FIVE STARS.
‘Abigail’s Party’ by Mike Leigh returns to the Alma in January before embarking on a UK tour.
Director: Anna Friend.
Producer: Holly Newton for Schoolhouse/Alma Tavern.
Cast: Anna Friend, Adam Elms, Jennifer Jope, Ryan Gilks, Diane Lukins.