Abigail’s Party – photo Nobby Clark
Excruciating. That’s the word that sprung from deep in my memory thinking back to the famous TV production of Abigail’s Party with Alison Steadman as Beverly. Seeing this new production directed by Sarah Esdaile I realise that there is so much more to this play than my memory suggests, and it is a rewarding and enjoyable revisit to one of the best scripts written for contemporary theatre.
In theme and attitude it does feel contemporary and relevant to today, even though it is now forty years since the first performance in Hampstead Theatre in 1977. Some of the period details may seem quaint – social smoking was normal and expected behaviour, and party food meant cheese and pineapple chunks on sticks.
The play is still bitingly relevant in the depiction of the struggles within intimate domestic relationships. Five people are brought together for an uncomfortably joyless social gathering which starts badly and does not improve. Two couples and a neighbour whose husband has run off all live close to each other, and compare their different social standings. The hostess is the dominant Beverly (Amanda Abbington), a sometime beautician in a department store, but mainly a full time housewife. Her lifestyle expectations demand a steady income from her estate agent husband Laurence (Ben Caplan), who is hyper-stressed by the demands of his clients as well as his wife. They are at the stage of a failing marriage where respect has long since gone, and a state of armed neutrality prevails.
Their first guests are new neighbours Angela (Charlotte Mills), a well built and voluble working class Cockney nurse and her husband Tony (Ciarán Owens), a handsome young office worker who had briefly been a professional footballer. They have just moved in to a house opposite Beverly and Laurence which they have yet to furnish even with a proper bed to sleep in. Last to the party is long-standing neighbour Susan (Rose Keegan). Her architect husband has departed for a younger woman, and she is nervously vacating her house while her fifteen year old daughter Abigail holds a teenage party. Susan is middle class, quietly spoken and aesthetic, in sharp contrast to the other two women.
The play is set entirely in Beverly and Laurence’s living room, suitably decorated with the best G-Plan furniture that money can buy, with the occasional thumping beat of Abigail’s music drifting through the walls. Those of us of a certain age may remember the design of the hostess’s accessories and furnishings with a certain fondness. Whatever happened to Courtelle shirts? Peanuts and crisps are a safe choice, but olives are a threatening modern addition to the snack food platter.
From time to time Beverly or Laurence put a disc on the record player and even this becomes symbolic of the bitter anger between them. For Beverly it is Donna Summer, Elvis or the fabulous Demis Roussos while for Laurence a bit of light classical hits the note.
Five is a difficult social number at the best of times, but when the five are so disparate in outlook and expectations there are bound to be clashes. With the dominant and aggressive personality of Beverly pushing everything just a bit too far the clashes soon come. From the start she flirts with Tony, insisting on a smoochy dance with him in front of the others. Meanwhile Angela tries her chirpy best to keep up with her new friends, but knows no restraint or tact in her conversation. Tony is monosyllabic at best, giving a strong impression that he would rather be just about anywhere else, even when Beverly drapes herself over him.
Laurence rushes around in an increasingly dyspeptic manner trying to address the needs of his wife and his clients with diminishing success. He briefly tries to discuss cultural matters with the quiet and nervous Susan, but such finer notions are stamped out by Beverly. Susan herself is as anxious as any parent who has yielded their house to a teenage party, an anxiety heightened by the unhelpful speculation of the other two women.
While there are hints of misogyny in the various roles’ depiction this seems to me a fair representation of social values in the 1970s. The liberation of the ‘free love’ 60s had given way to a rather grim decade of de-industrialisation and social unrest. The decade that was born out of flower power ended in punk rock.
The five players of this drama give faultlessly accurate performances of the five characters. The direction and excellent design (by Janet Bird) take us right into Beverly’s living room from the very start, as Beverly dances solo to Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” expressing her sexuality and desperation for love while always performing to an invisible watcher. As that invisible watcher the audience is drawn in immediately. Amanda Abbington effortlessly recreates the monster that Alison Steadman originally created as Beverly with her then husband writer Mike Leigh. Her performance dominates the play in just the way that Beverly dominates everyone around her. While the character is indeed scary Amanda never makes Beverly less than 100% believable.
It is no spoiler to say that this party which starts badly ends worse, fuelled by an industrial quantity of alcohol which loosens tongues and tummies. But it is not unpleasant to watch, there is physical comedy as well as superb dialogue and each character will be familiar to all of us, perhaps too familiar.
A delightful play that is as relevant now as in 1977, a study in how couples work, a precise snapshot of suburban England. Abigail’s Party is all of these and more. This production is as strong and memorable as the classic TV version, but adds a great deal of charm and subtle interaction. Don’t miss it!
Abigail’s Party is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday 1st April. Discounts for Friends, Schools, Corporate Club, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups.
To book, call the box office on 01603 630000 or log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk