Tag Archives: Beth Colley

Abigail's Party

Abigail’s Party

★★★★

Park Theatre

Abigail's Party

Abigail’s Party

Park Theatre

Reviewed – 11th November 2021

★★★★

 

“It bears the wrinkles of age, yet this production at the Park Theatre feels wonderfully fresh”

 

When Mike Leigh was approached by the Hampstead Theatre, back in 1977, to write a new play he initially told them that it was out of the question. He was busy and that was that. But over a long lunch he was eventually persuaded and before dessert came, he had been offered ten week’s rehearsal time and a cast of five to come up with one of his ‘improvised’ plays. “I’ll do it and get it out of the way” he told his wife (Alison Steadman) when he got home, “it’ll sink without trace”.

“Abigail’s Party” was a smash hit. The hottest ticket in town and subsequently wheeled into the studios to become a success on television and eventually Leigh’s hallmark ‘state of the nation’ play. Over forty years later there is the inherent danger that any revival would come across as dated. But in an age where theatre is under pressure to be ‘relevant’ or ‘resonant’, Vivienne Garnett’s production avoids the pitfalls. Instead, it is filled with period charm that serves as a reminder that Leigh’s seminal work should not be updated or shoehorned into modern day sensibilities. The language and sentiments that jar nowadays remain on record. Thankfully we can laugh instead of being offended. The writer can take the credit for this, although in this case it is mainly down to the fine performances of an excellent cast, who wear so well the uncomfortable clothes of Leigh’s characters.

We are thrust into their world immediately. Beth Colley’s design pays attention to every detail, evoking not just the era beautifully but also the overriding sense of class and social standing – the Lowry and Van Gogh prints, and leather-bound Shakespeare that “can’t be read”. The furnishings, tableware, and decor. We are truly in the land of light ale and ‘little’ cigarettes.

We are introduced to the characters one by one. Beverly is preparing for an evening of drinks with her new neighbours, Angela and Tony. She has also invited another neighbour, Susan, whose fifteen-year-old daughter Abigail is holding a party at home. Beverly’s husband comes in from work, harassed, sweary and sweating, just before the guests arrive. Gin and Bacardi soon wash away the initial stiffness, but as the alcohol takes hold, frostiness turns to flirting turns to fighting.

Kellie Shirley burns with nervous energy in a quite captivating performance as Beverly, capturing the bundles of contradictions. Unable to stop talking, unable to take no for an answer and unable to resist upstaging her husband, she is a ghastly character, but Shirley shows us too the sadness and vulnerability. Laurence is already stressed enough, as the workaholic estate agent, and is unable to relax in his wife’s company. As they bait each other they use their guests as ammunition. Ryan Early struts like a dangerous dog, firing unveiled snipes left right and centre, adding to his wife’s guest’s discomfort. Matt Di Angelo, as the mostly monosyllabic Tony, conveys a whole backstory with just a raised eyebrow. “He’s not violent, he’s just a bit nasty” Angela confides, but Di Angelo’s immaculately placed performance reveals dark undercurrents that force us to doubt her words. Emma Noakes’ Angela is wonderfully silly and timid, simultaneously oppressed, and strong. A tough character to get right but Noakes pulls it off superbly. Barbara D’Alterio gives a stillness to Susan that combines grace and manners with disdain. She is too polite to leave but, clearly, would rather be elsewhere.

It is an emotion the audience don’t share. This is a lively, dynamic, and absorbing evening. Admittedly there are no real surprises, but we knew that. “Abigail’s Party” has a familiarity about it that it probably cannot shake off now. It bears the wrinkles of age, yet this production at the Park Theatre feels wonderfully fresh.

 

 

Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Christian Davies

 


Abigail’s Party

Park Theatre until 4th December

 

Previously reviewed at this venue this year:
When Darkness Falls | ★★★ | August 2021
Flushed | ★★★★ | October 2021

 

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Black Chiffon

★★★★

Park Theatre

Black Chiffon

Black Chiffon

Park Theatre

Reviewed – 19th September 2019

★★★★

 

“a hugely enjoyable watch which will have its audience gripped”

 

Mrs Alicia Christie (Abigail Cruttenden) has the perfect upstanding family life. Or so she would like you to believe. Below the surface of formality, there bubbles intense resentment and one-sided jealousy between father Robert (Ian Kelly) and son Roy (Jack Staddon), the latter of which is due to be wed in four days to the beautiful Louise (Jemima Watling). Daughter Thea (Eva Feiler) offers some respite to the family’s persistent quarrelling, but tensions are consistently high and the stressful burden of playing happy families is taken on by the dutiful Alicia.

When Alicia goes out to the local department store to buy some groceries for dinner with Louise’s parents, she makes a split-second decision that shocks both her family and herself. Enlisting the services of ‘mind specialist’ Dr. Hawkins (Nicholas Murchie), the well-to-do family attempt to understand what led their dear matriarch to commit such an act. Black Chiffon, written by Lesley Storm in 1949 and directed here by Clive Brill, is about family, social preservation and the often-unrecognised struggle of the harmonising mother.

The acting is strong from all parties and the characters highly believable. Cruttenden commands the stage with her defiant motherly strength and Kelly does well to act the detestable and distant father. Staddon and Feiler have good sibling chemistry and Watling – in the same role her late grandmother, Patricia Watling, played in the 1950 Broadway production – is the perfect simpering bride. Murchie is witty and quick and his conversations with Cruttenden comprise some of the play’s best moments. The dialogue can be a bit cliché at times such as the grand announcement that closes the first act, but in general the script is solid and intriguing.

The set (Beth Colley) is wonderfully elaborate. The play’s action takes place in the drawing room, a decorated space with dark green walls and a large window to the right. An ornate camelback sofa, armchair and round mahogany coffee table are centre stage. A well-stocked drinks cabinet sits on the back wall next to a small table with a telephone. The actors enter and exit from stage left through a pair of double doors that can be pulled to. The audience also walks through these and along a short corridor decorated as if part of the house to reach their seats which is a nice touch in immersing them in the space.

Despite this limited setting, the play gives a good sense of space beyond the drawing room. The characters comment on the hustle and bustle elsewhere in the house and we hear cars pull into the drive. A painting hanging above the fireplace is remarked to be a painting of the house’s Embankment surroundings some years ago, and the characters regularly gaze out the window.

Each act is marked by a fade to black in which the family’s maid Nannie (Yvonne Newman) bustles around the house tidying and rearranging. Beyond this, the lighting (Pip Thurlow) is only notably used to create a sense of day and night through the window. This is at its best when vibrant oranges and pinks create an early morning glow. The costumes (Neil Gordon) were good and of the era with Cruttenden treated to a fabulous array of dresses and headpieces. The music – taken from David Darling’s album ‘Cello’ – creates a strong sense of foreboding and anxiety.

Brill’s production of Black Chiffon is a hugely enjoyable watch which will have its audience gripped. The performance is slick and carries itself with the same dignity to which the Christie family aspire.

 

Reviewed by Flora Doble

Photography by Mark Douet

 


Black Chiffon

Park Theatre until 12th October

 

Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
My Dad’s Gap Year | ★★½ | February 2019
Cry Havoc | ★★ | March 2019
The Life I Lead | ★★★ | March 2019
We’re Staying Right Here | ★★★★ | March 2019
Hell Yes I’m Tough Enough | ★★½ | April 2019
Intra Muros | | April 2019
Napoli, Brooklyn | ★★★★ | June 2019
Summer Rolls | ★★★½ | June 2019
The Time Of Our Lies | ★★★★ | August 2019
The Weatherman | ★★★ | August 2019

 

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