Review – Abigail’s Party ****

There can be few, if any, plays more closely associated with the performance by the original actor than Abigail’s Party. This new touring production embraces that performance with Jodie Prenger’s Beverly adopting the famous voice. Director Sarah Esdaile reminds us in the programme that as Mike Leigh’s plays are created in a collaborative process involving the actors, it is fair and reasonable to say that Alison’s Steadman’s performance is as much a part of the character as the words she says.

Abilgail’s Party is about social aspirations of the middle class. It is set at Beverly and Tony’s, who have invited the neighbours round for drinks whilst the unseen Abigail hosts her teenage party nearby. As the evening progresses our initial views of these people are challenged as they reveal unexpected traits in response to unfolding events.

It is a huge credit to Ms Prenger that her presence in the role brings Beverly fully and awfully to life with complete credibility, leaving you with no longing for the original, brilliant though it was. Dressed in a colourful maxi dress she is a formidable figure even in her own living room. She girates and sweeps around the space which, in all its 70s gaucheness, is like an extension of her.

Daniel Casey plays her estate agent husband Laurence who, after just three years of marriage, has clearly had his fill of Beverly but has also, so far, successfully kept a lid on it. We sympathise with him as comes apart in fits and starts, but in his own way he is just as awful as Beverly. Calum Callaghan plays taciturn guest Tony who, with his wife Angela (Vicky Binns), has been invited to spend the evening at Beverly’s to welcome them to the neighbourhood. In fact Beverly is simply using the opportunity to make sure she is safe in feeling superior to her new neighbours. Fortunately Angela is either smart enough or stupid enough not to notice this (which of these she is becomes clear towards the end). Calum Callaghan brings enough warmth to Tony for us to see his appeal whilst Vicky Binns is bubbly and fun in a role which combines naivety with a certain steeliness.

The other guest is Sue, who has come round so she can leave her 15 year old daughter Abigail to have a party at her house. Rose Keegan was, for me, outstanding in the role. Such a beautifully observed character who has been clearly too timid throughout her life ever to say what she really thinks or wants. This was a role with something new and different about it and it was hilarious and charming.

A word about the set, which is a masterpiece of 70s interior design. Of course the play was originally produced in 1977 and was not a period piece. Now this look brings a whole new dimension to the evening, where 70s attitudes, music, drinks and fashion add both depth and humour to the experience.

Abigail’s Party is at the Orchard Theatre Dartford until 6 April 2019 and then continues on tour.


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