A SECOND INVITATION: After being wowed by the most intimate and hilariously tragicomic production of Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’ at Bristol’s Alma Tavern Theatre in November, Holly Georgeson speaks to the creatives from Schoolhouse Productions about her theatrical highlight of 2017 as they prepare for the upcoming revival.
As 2017 begins to disappear over the horizon, I find myself having a clear-out at home, rather than waiting for the New Year; I’ve never kept a resolution and don’t intend to start now. Slightly tipsy on Lidl’s warming, cosy mulled wine, a huge padded envelope drops to the floor and out spills dozens of slips, notes, and cards – my theatre tickets from the past twelve months. Trawling back through, I see a slow trip to Sidcup with ‘The Caretaker’ at the Bristol Old Vic, flights of fancy with Living Spit and Degrees of Error, the Edinburgh Fringe, a micro-theatre festival in prison cells, political drama in Bath, a modern ‘Cherry Orchard’, muscular war with ‘Coriolanus’ at the RSC, enjoying my wait for Godot at the Tobacco Factory, and many, many more besides… And so, you ask, what was the highlight, the stand-out, the show that lingers long in the memory? Well, if anyone had told me it would be a pub theatre production of the oft-revived Mike Leigh classic ‘Abigail’s Party’, I would have scoffed. Please don’t misunderstand me, I adore the fringe and all it has to offer (in fact, some of the finest, most inventive productions lie off the beaten track) but this was a play I had seen too many times to mention – I could quote the entire script by rote – and was also rather scratching my noggin wondering how Schoolhouse would squeeze it into the tiny Alma black box space. The result was exceptionally good. With a set so intricate that waves of seventies’ nostalgia swept through the crowd as we waited for curtain up, an ensemble so in tune with each other they crackled with energy, acting so detailed and close-up one felt every single moment, and blissfully comedic business that had us mopping our eyes, I was quite overwhelmed with the atmosphere and felt gloriously uplifted as we spilled on to Alma Vale Road, still giggling.
A revival in early January is imminent – excellent news for those who missed it – and so I spoke to two of the company’s core members about the production, how rehearsals progressed, the longevity of the play, and what’s next…
ANNA FRIEND – BEVERLY/DIRECTOR.
You set up Schoolhouse, the Alma’s in-house company, back in 2016. Can you tell me how it all started?
So, back in 2016 I was at the Alma with my other company Quirky Bird Theatre with our production of That Face by Polly Stenham. I hadn’t been there since 2011 and since then Holly Newton, my producer and theatre manager had joined the Alma team. The Alma always had a very special place in my heart because it was the first professional venue I ever worked in and so over the course of the week, I developed a lovely relationship with Holly and at some point asked if they were interested in becoming a producing house as well – the answer was a resounding YES!! And that was that. We developed our artistic strategy and started thinking about our debut production which ended up being ‘Two’ by Jim Cartwright. Over the past year we have developed a strong reputation for taking on ‘classic texts’ and giving them fresh new life.
What made you decide on ‘Abigail’s Party’, one of the most seminal plays of the last century? Was it difficult to forget previous incarnations/the original?
Doing Abigail’s Party was an ambition of Holly’s for many years and she regularly applied for the rights, in the hope of gaining them at some point. I think she’d kind of given up hope and then suddenly they came through! We only had a few weeks to cast and get into rehearsal and in reality we only had around 40 hours of rehearsal before curtains up. For me, as both Director and Actor, I hadn’t ever seen the original although of course I was aware of its popularity and the high regard for Alison Steadman as Beverly. The bedrock of my work lies very much in creating a strong ensemble and so for me it was important to establish the importance of each character and ultimately I think this is why this particular production worked so well. Although there is a great deal of emphasis on Beverly I believe that every character brings a great deal of comedy and value to the piece and this was how we proceeded in rehearsal.
The play is now forty years old and regarded as a classic. Why do you think it has endured?
I think it’s because there is so much nostalgia wrapped up in the play, it’s aesthetic and the familiarity of those well worn lines. The audience are in a sweet state of anticipation, knowing what will come and delighting when it arrives. I think also awkward dinner parties will never be a thing of the past and we all recognise those cringe-worthy moments from our own experiences.
What were rehearsals like? Did you find it a difficult play to rehearse and why?
Rehearsals were absolutely brilliant – huge fun!! The dialogue is so sharp, so fantastically well written that there was a lot of time spent laughing and then creating as a team. Although myself and Holly had the overview, once the play was in our bones, all the actors continued to craft and add ideas to what became the final piece. Saying that the performance evolved during the run at the Alma, with Beverley doing a few new things each night – cheeky minx!
Hard question probably but do you have favourite moments/lines from the play?
Aaaarrghhh. You are right, very tricky because there are so many and most of them are really small moments but I do love Ang’s speech about curry and I absolutely loved Jenny Jope’s character portrayal for Angela, I probably laughed at every one of Tony’s ‘Ta’s’ in rehearsal and Adam Elms’ opening speeches as Laurence were delivered to perfection. As for Beverly, I enjoyed playing her so much but my favourite moments were probably those that the audience loved most – the Demis Roussos moment, the cheesy pineapple one and of course the Donna Summer opening..
There has been a resurgence in pub theatre in the last decade or so – what makes it such a special experience?
I think what makes the Alma so special is the relationship that the audience gets to have with the characters and the play. It’s so intimate, you see the whites of their eyes and therefore you become so much more invested in the performance. There’s a real sense of togetherness for everyone and when things go well, that produces a massive buzz!! Also, I love that you can pop down, get a drink, have some fabulous food then nip upstairs for some great theatre, it makes the arts so much accessible and friendly 🙂
Of course, I hope this isn’t the last we see of ‘Abigail’s Party’ but what’s next for Schoolhouse after this?
Sadly, I think this will be the last run for this fabulous production as the rights are very tricky to come by and we feel so lucky to have been granted them twice! However, never say never… Next for us is ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ in April with auditions coming up in January – another epic text?? Bring it on…
ADAM ELMS – LAURENCE.
You play Laurence, Beverly’s overworked, uptight husband, a character that can get lost in the background or feel a little flat. How did you bring him to life so wonderfully and what attracted you to the role in the first place?
Well I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there actually in that he is a character that doesn’t often register much or feels a little two-dimensional – at least, until the final ten minutes or so. I first saw the play about sixteen, seventeen years ago and thought it was a stunning piece of work; not a lot happens and yet everything happens, it’s all in the pin-sharp dialogue, the silences, the glances between characters, the sudden power shifts, the minutiae. And from that moment I knew I’d like to have a crack at playing Laurence. After watching the BBC TV version and three other stage productions, I was always a little disappointed in the portrayals of the role as I felt essential traits of his character were either too muted or missed completely. Look at the text – it’s all very Chekhovian, he’s a tragicomic figure, pathetic and unfulfilled and constantly belittled or emasculated by his hectoring wife and probably deeply depressed too. However, he’s also a terrible snob really, pompous and superior, and particularly in the second half where he gains some control of the party; there are barbs to the guests, pointed and nasty, and undercurrents of racism and misogyny – and while we know some of this stems from his frustration and unhappiness, it’s certainly no excuse. So it’s treading this fine line as Laurence, on one hand he’s a sympathetic character with forced geniality and lingering thoughts of what he could have been and on the other, just as monstrous as Beverly. Anna and I worked on balancing their explosively combative relationship with small moments of genuine affection – they are clearly fond of one another but the marriage is on the skids and as rehearsals developed, so did our reactions and contact with each other as we discovered more and more. We did a lot of improv around the script too, which was enormous fun!
The run was a huge success, complete sell-out, and audience reaction couldn’t have been much better – were you surprised at the overwhelming response the production received?
Well, yes and no. It’s such a famous play – most people can quote it, even those who haven’t seen it for forty years – that there feels a duty to serve the text while also steering clear of carbon copies. I actually think it can be rather easy to ruin it as the production needs to be alive to the humour of the piece but not ever overplay it; as with everything, when rooted in truth, it always works best. And the play also has a dark underbelly, shades of menace, cruelty, regret, disappointment, and loneliness, so it really is a delicate balancing act. Trusting the dialogue is essential. The original is so loved too, and we sold out a lot of the run before we even began rehearsals which was wonderful but terrifying so the pressure definitely built as we approached opening night! But the audience on that evening were an absolute dream, brilliantly responsive and warm and there to enjoy themselves – and that was the case for the rest of the week. People would rush up to us in the bar afterwards, thanking us for a great evening out, offering to buy us drinks – a few effusive spectators even said they preferred it to the original which is the biggest compliment. So the level of the response was surprising I suppose. It was a joy to do, blissful, and I can’t wait to do it again. I’m actually very proud of it.
How has it been working for Schoolhouse and being back at the Alma, where you were a regular face at one time I believe?
I mean, you’re interviewing them too aren’t you? So, I can’t really say they were an absolute nightmare, can I? Luckily, I don’t have to, because it’s such a pleasure – lots of audience said they loved the chemistry and interplay between us as an ensemble so it seems to be showing that we enjoy working together which is lovely. It was a surprisingly organised process too for the most part, which isn’t always the case, especially with newer or establishing companies but Anna and Holly are a dynamic team. We’d often cry with laughter in rehearsals too… I can be such a corpser, it’s awful, it’s like a disease – not actually on stage mid-performance I might add! It’s the worst with Jenny [Jope, who plays Angela], I sometimes find it very difficult to even look at her in rehearsals, her Ange is a thing of wonder. There’s been a few moments though when we’ve all been doubled up giggling. Delirium, I suppose. But we all feel comfortable in the room and on stage together I think and everyone is extremely generous and hard-working so I feel very lucky to be a part of it. As for the Alma, it’s had a complete refurb since I last performed there (2012, I believe) and it’s really freshened the place up – lovely atmosphere in the pub and the theatre. I’ve done all sorts there – Martin McDonagh, Neil Simon, Dario Fo, black comedies, European tragedies – and what I love best is the intimacy. The audience is right on top of you and particularly with Abigail’s, almost feel part of the action. It’s electrifying. Pub theatres, studio spaces, site-specific venues – they all break down barriers. The cast and audience need to be in it together, theatre should be collaborative, and when you all spark off each other, there is nothing like it. Telling stories – that’s all it is. Telling stories and escaping all together for an hour or two. What could be more wonderful than that? Many people said after the show that they feel now such an intimate venue is the only way to stage ‘Abigail’s Party’ – and I’m inclined to agree with them!
You’re now London-based but UWE is your alma mater and you lived in Bristol for years. I also saw your outstanding two-hander at The Island in April for the Skint Festival. How does it feel to be back working in the city?
Bristol still has a huge part of my heart, I still see it as a second home in many ways and I jump at any opportunity to come back and work here. Most people feel sentimental about their university city, don’t they? Or is it just me?? I always feel like I’m cheating on London though – Bristol is my cheeky Westcountry mistress who always keeps dragging me back. I read Drama and English Lit at UWE and adored it; they were some of the best years of my life. I certainly packed in as much as I could while living in the city and pop down as much as I can between jobs because I still have lots of great friends here… I truly relax in Bristol. There’s an atmosphere here, a vibrancy, a friendliness, and a calmness that is unlike any other city I’ve been to – mind you, I was born and bred in the South West so I feel right at home. And the theatre scene is very exciting – here’s to many more jobs in good old Briz!
Holly Georgeson was talking to Anna Friend and Adam Elms.
Read her 5* review of the original run here: https://flaneur.me.uk/11/new-life-for-mike-leighs-classic-abigails-party-at-the-alma-tavern-theatre-bristol/
The revival of Schoolhouse Productions’ ABIGAIL’S PARTY runs at the Alma Tavern, Bristol, from Wednesday 3rd January to Saturday 6th January at 7:30pm.
Visit www.almatavernandtheatre.co.uk for details and tickets.