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
Park Theatre until 4th December
Previously reviewed at this venue this year: