Writer and director, Mike Leigh is known for allowing the story to grow from its characters. Abigail’s Party is one of his most famous works, because what he captured in the interactions of these five neighbours is a glimpse, not just of 70’s Suburbia but, of modern Britain.
Leigh has tweaked the script for this new production, and director, Sarah Esdaile has injected some of his original authenticity by allowing the actors to imagine their characters as fully-human in off-stage scenarios.
This has paid off with a richly layered production that keeps comedy and tragedy never more than a hair’s breadth away. As fast as the laughs keep coming so do the genuine body-blow barbs – and that’s just between husband and wife.
Janet Bird’s wonderful design literally removes the veneer of respectability when it lifts and unfolds to reveal Beverly preparing to welcome guests into her fabulous, on-trend, new home. On the surface she has it all: the real – not just leather look – leather three-piece, the fully-stocked drinks cabinet, and high-tech fibre-optic lamp. But even before the night descends into chaos we spot little chinks in Beverly’s well-presented armour when she puts a gift of Beaujolais in the fridge.
As over-bearing hostess Beverly, Jodie Prenger, sashays around the room in her paisley-print maxi-dress, demanding her guests dance to Demis Roussos, force-feeding them cheese and pineapple sticks, and making quiet divorcee, Susan sick with ‘just another top-up’ of gin.
Yet, despite the monstrous absurdity of her character, Prenger lifts her above caricature, to give a mesmerizing performance that captures Beverly’s sadness and vulnerability as well as her affected one-upmanship. She looks like a woman who enjoys life but has had hers stifled in this suburban box.
Vicky Binns, dressed in a cute baby-pink mini-dress, plays wide-eyed neighbour, Angela with just the right balance of innocence and knowing. Rose Keegan looks a little shell-shocked as Susan who has come to the party because she’s been thrown out of her own home for daughter, Abigail to host her own. She doesn’t have much to say but makes each line memorable with a tortured tone.
If you think the women come out of it badly, Leigh gives masculinity an even rougher ride in Beverly’s workaholic bore of a husband, Laurence (Daniel Casey) and the handsome but violent Tony (Calum Callaghan).
It is an absorbing production where the well-observed physicality of the characters brings as much humour as the sharp lines they deliver.
While the layers are peeled from these middle-aged lives to reveal the chaos and sadness beneath, the raw sound of a new generation beats through the wall. Forty-years on, décor, tastes, use of language, and certainly house-prices have changed. But strip these away and we’re left wondering if a grown-up Abigail living in the suburbs would be so much different from her mum?
Abigail’s Party is at The Opera House, Manchester from 8-13 April 2019.★ ★ ★ ★