Oxford Playhouse, Oxford – until 20 April 2017
Strains of Donna Summer and Demis Roussos on the turntable, flock wallpaper and a retro bar, can only be setting the scene for Mike Leigh’s classic piece, Abigail’s Party. Devised and directed by Mike Leigh in 1977, the television incarnation starred Alison Steadman as nightmare hostess, Beverly and is an iconic masterpiece.
It’s an abundantly dark piece with many cringe-inducing moments and essentially offers the audience a snapshot of the lives of five unhappy people – although their misery may not be immediately evident. Each of the five characters masks their dysfunctional existence, whether it be with the aid of alcohol or hiding behind their jobs, wealth or possessions – or indeed lack there of. As the evening draws on, vulnerabilities come to the fore and the façade falls away. Beverly (Amanda Abbington) is hosting the gathering which brings all of these ‘misfits’ to the same place at the same time. Her husband Lawrence (Ben Caplan) doesn’t particularly play co-host as you would expect, instead he’s preoccupied with work and suffering from indigestion. Angela (Charlotte Mills) and Tony (Ciaran Owens) are new to the neighbourhood, Angela is a nurse, fresh-faced, naïve and easy prey to a narcissist like Beverly. Tony is attractive, has an air of confidence for a man of few words and instantly catches Beverly’s eye. Sue (Rose Keegan) is the last to arrive, her daughter, Abigail is having a party and her mother is obviously deeply concerned about it. It seems to me that Sue might not have had much of a say in this party taking place, fifteen year old Abigail sounds like the type to have rail-roaded to get her own way. Beverly, on the other hand is delighting in the fact that teenagers are across the road having a good time.
Amanda Abbington is deliciously wicked as Beverly, dominating Angela with an over-bearing and powerful presence, throwing frequent derogatory comments in Lawrence’s direction and positively smouldering around Tony. The sexual tension between the pair is palpable. Abbington is well known from the television, however if you can catch her playing a role which was made for her, you’ll be grateful that you did. Abbington is a force on the boards and it’s hard to believe that theatre hasn’t sustained the bulk of her career. Long may she continue with live performance. Ben Caplan is quite the match for her as Lawrence, he’s a ball of pent up energy as he tries to juggle his job, Beverly’s demands and co-hosting the do. Caplan capably shows the shift in Lawrence’s persona as he becomes more agitated, increasingly irate and eventually loses it completely with his wife. Charlotte Mills is a revelation as Angela, she simpers, smiles and demonstrates excellent comic timing. The lack of chemistry between Angela and Tony is obvious and should be treated as quite natural as it is inexplicable why they would have ended up married to one another. Mills’ facial expressions speak volumes when she has no dialogue and she captured my attention for that reason. Ciaran Owens also has impeccable timing, he also conveys much without saying a word and the chemistry that develops between Tony and Beverly is blatant. It feels as though Owens steers this element so that it isn’t unnecessarily overt though, he tones it down when the moment calls for it, giving substance to the role. Rose Keegan as Sue completes the picture, much as the character is shy, unassertive and spends the majority of the play looking decidedly uncomfortable, there is a sparky personality which struggles to emerge. Keegan plays this with a remarkable combination of quiet determination and inhibited emotion. Sue’s intoxication from Beverly’s insistence of plying her with alcohol (and on an empty stomach) sneaks up and as typically, the character is not drawing attention to herself.
The set is authentic in comparison to the popular television version, it almost felt as if I’d stepped into the television in fact and had a closer window on the action. If you’ve seen the piece before, be it on stage or on screen, I urge you to see this production as there is a fresh take on a classic, here. If you’ve never seen it before, this is the perfect introduction to a show which was born out of improvisation, as Leigh’s work famously is. With no weak links in the five strong cast and either hearty or indeed nervous laughter emulating from the audience, this is a sure-fire hit.