Abigail’s Party is Mike Leigh’s iconic dark comedy and this week it is partying at Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury and you are invited. Abigail’s party is a classic play that everybody (and his wife) have seen except me, so reviewing this for the first time I had no comparison and have written my review based entirely on tonight’s performance. Set in 1977, Beverly and her husband Laurence are throwing a party for their newlywed neighbours, Tony and Angela. Joining them is highly strung Sue who’s been banished from the party of her teenage daughter Abigail. It’s truly 1970’s suburbia and its heady mix of free-flowing cocktails, classic disco and cheese and pineapple sticks, Demis Roussos and 70’s fashion to die for. Hmm perhaps I should change that line.
The show opens with Beverley dressed up in her bright flowing maxi dress dancing to Donna Summer. (Is it a full-length dress type of party? Beverley would say it’s just casual, but has gone out of her way to look fabulous). Jodie Prenger plays Beverley and is fantastic in the role. Jodie shot to fame when she landed the role of Nancy in Oliver! after winning BBC 1's I'd Do Anything. Recently, Jodie starred in the one-woman UK tour of Shirley Valentine, which I reviewed and found her outstanding so it’s wonderful to see her, once again as a suburban housewife, albeit in a very different role. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Jodie dance to a bit of disco and it really sets the scene with her cigarette in one hand and drink in the other and occasionally plumping up the cushions. It feels like Beverley is really having this party to show off her new sofa and how her house is a little bit bigger and better decorated with expensive furniture than that of her neighbours. Jodie is totally fabulous in the role and talks with an accent that feels a bit sarcastic but we let it go as it seems to be her character rather than just being bitchy to her neighbours. Daniel Casey plays Lawrence, her poor hard-working husband who is always running around after her. He just gets home from work and doesn’t even have time to change out of his work suit before Beverley is asking him to go get some beer from the off license. Even once her guests arrive, she asks them what they want to drink and then asks Lawrence to make the drinks. Daniel gives poor Lawrence the perfect balance between dutiful husband and standing up for himself occasionally.
Angela and Tony have just moved to the area and are keen to get to know the neighbours. Angela is played by Vicky Binns and Vicky is excellent as slowly allowing Ange’s personality to open up the more she drinks. And the more she drinks, the more vocal she is; disclosing that Tony can be nasty, and even bursting into a bit of dancing herself. The type of dancing you don’t do when you are sober! Tony is a man of few words. He is played by Calum Callaghan and doesn’t seem fazed at all by Beverley’s flirting or Ange’s drinking. He seems to know his place and isn’t too fussed about keeping up with the Joneses. Calum gives Tony a calm manner but still very much a man’s man. Beverley keeps flirting with him, calling him Tone and it’s not clear if this is for the benefit of Lawrence to make him jealous or if it’s for Ange to subtlety make it clear that Beverley is the sexiest woman there – and no one should say anything different. Beverley is good at undermining people in a subtle way. There is a delicious moment where Beverley and Ange are talking and Beverley suggests that Ange’s lipstick should be a paler colour to match her dress. It’s not quite bitching but it’s not exactly a kind thing either. Beverley can be forceful and eventually does talk Tone and Ange into having a smoke – despite them both having recently given up. Beverley is the queen of her castle but it does undermine the relationship between Ange and Tone.
If you are thinking, ‘Where is Abigail?’ then I can help with that. Abigail is a neighbours daughter who is having her own punk party and has thrown out her mum, Sue, so Sue is now at Beverley’s gathering instead. Sue is middle class, very meek and unassuming and easily talked into things, such as another drink even when she doesn’t want one. She often shakes her head when saying yes, and her slow pace and pause before speaking can get rather irritating. This role is played wonderfully by Rose Keegan who is fabulous at making Sue so complex you are not sure if you hate her or feel sorry for her.
Looking at the play from today’s perspective; it’s very dated in places. There is a lot of sexism ‘Tony won’t let me drive’, and none of the characters are any you would aspire to be like. Each are equally flawed and annoying. As the tension builds, their true characters come out and it’s not a gathering I would want to be at. Today people still have their flaws but are much less polite and would say if they weren’t happy about a situation. I would certainly say something. I can’t imagine that polite society exists anymore. I do want to congratulate the perfect set with its shag-pile rug, record player and drinks cabinet. I also need to mention the wonderful wardrobe that nails the 1970’s. I’m very ashamed to say I had an ensemble very similar to Sue’s but I was about 12 so therefore dressed by my mum so it doesn’t count…right?!
This is a true classic play and is acted beautifully by all the cast. It’s very uncomfortable in places, but that is exactly what its meant to be like. Jodie feels the same. She says, ‘Abigail’s Party is a true British classic and a real bucket list part for me. I’m thrilled to be involved in something so wonderful.’
Abigail’s Party is at Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury until 23 March 2019.