Mark Ludmon reviews Mike Leigh’s iconic play Abigail’s Party now playing at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch prior to a tour.
Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, London
Since its birth in 1977, Mike Leigh’s iconic Abigail’s Party has found new life on stage in London, across the UK and even off-Broadway but it has finally come home to its Essex roots in an enjoyable new production at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, just down the road from Romford. Against the backdrop of Lee Newby’s meticulous and delightful period set, it explores change and shifting values in 1970s society through a Saturday-night get-together over drinks at the home of socially aspiring Beverly and her stressed-out husband Laurence. With cheesy-pineapple nibbles and lots of gin and Bacardi, they entertain their neighbours: young couple Ange and Tone and divorced mother Sue who is staying out of the way of her 15-year-old punk daughter Abigail’s house party.
Tensions within the two marriages are barely below the surface and, as the alcohol flows, clear signs emerge of unhappiness, hostility and resentment – but all just about kept under control by the forced gentility of the occasion. The enduring appeal of the play owes much to Leigh’s ear for everyday language, with lines that have helped make this a highly quotable cult classic, but there are themes that continue to resonate beyond the 1970s.
Forty years later, Beverly and Laurence’s obsession with class is still relevant today where social mobility and opportunities for working-class people remain limited. While race is only fleetingly touched upon by the five white characters, the play depicts people getting on with their day-to-day lives at a time of massive social upheaval – something that is just as keenly felt in Brexit Britain. Set at the height of “women’s lib”, it portrays people trying to find their identities within marriage where traditional roles have been challenged by feminism. There is an unsettling Pinteresque quality at times, especially when the characters swap partners to dance, but, under director Douglas Rintoul, this production also emphasises Leigh’s depiction of male violence, from Laurence’s frustrated waves of rage at Beverly to Tone’s glowering exasperation with the warm-hearted Ange.
Despite all the darker themes, the greatest appeal of Abigail’s Party is its comedy, and this is plentiful under Rintoul’s direction. Melanie Gutteridge overcomes memories of Beverlys of the past, from Alison Steadman to the more recent Jill Halfpenny and Amanda Abbington, with an unusually understated performance, avoiding any risk of 1970s camp. Constantly anxious to assert her aspiring social status, she only appears happy and relaxed when dancing to her favourite pop songs. And, yes, we still have Demis Roussos and other Seventies hits including Baccara’s evocative “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie”.
It may be Beverly’s face on all the posters, but this approach to her character allows the play to be even more of an ensemble piece. Amy Downham shines as kind-hearted Ange, the only character who appears easy in her own skin. With a spot-on Romford accent, her Ange is no meek simpleton but someone in control of her life with a steely backbone and practical common sense that come to the surface when it really matters.
Christopher Staines is excellent as Laurence, a taut core of anxiety coated in a light veneer of affable charm, while Susie Emmett is perfect as middle-class Sue, fretful and slightly bewildered by her neighbours’ behaviour. Liam Bergin is a moody, scowling presence as Tone, a failed professional footballer forced to work as a computer operator, who seems to have little love for his talkative, socially confident wife. While the familiar characters are all there, Rintoul gives us a fresh perspective on them, making them feel as vivid and real as they were four decades ago.
Running at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch to 22 September, 2018 and then on tour.