Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch – 22 September 2018
The role of the monstrously pretentious housewife Beverly, created by Alison Steadman in her husband Mike Leigh’s 1977 comedy Abigail’s Party is as embedded in public consciousness as Edith Evans’ monstrously pretentious Lady Bracknell.
“Gin and Tonic, Ange?” is a stock phrase in my household. So pitch perfect is Leigh’s seminal comedy, directors of revivals face an impossible dilemma – to strike an individual line and risk misinterpreting the piece, or to sit a provincial theatre cast down in front of the DVD and persuade them to mimic as closely as possible the original.
At Hornchurch, artistic director Douglas Rintoul seems to have gone for the faithful-to-the-first-production approach: not only is Melanie Gutteridge’s Beverly a neatly dutiful homage to Ms Steadman, Liam Bergin and Amy Downham adhere satisfyingly close to the model set by John Salthouse and Janine Duvitski as the taciturn Tony and garrulous Angela. Bergin’s reinterpretation of Salthouse’s closed body language and terse speech pattern is especially well done.
Perhaps, as Lady Bracknell says about ignorance, this play is ‘a delicate, exotic, fruit – touch it and the bloom is gone’ and in bringing this 40-year old classic to a new audience, Rintoul and the company serve it well as does Lee Newby’s carefully-researched set, right down to the onyx and gilt coffee table which the taste-blind Beverly has paired with a Danish modern sofa.
Although the petty snobbery among what we now call middle class ‘strivers’ is achingly well portrayed, it’s amusing to note that Beverly’s faux-pas in putting a bottle of Beaujolais in the fridge is now an acceptable way to serve young Burgundy, and that Laurence’s long working hours and obsequious attention to his clients as an estate agent would today be standard practice at Foxtons.
Ironically, he drives a Mini Cooper.
Such a carefully reproduced play inevitably draws attention to authorial faults – the ending is abrupt and while it allows the cast to show the real characteristics of each individual – Sue’s sudden anger and the reversal of the dominant role in Tony and Angela’s couple – it’s too hasty and leaves you wanting to know much more how Beverly copes.
Someone suggested after the show that the production wasn’t sufficiently modern because it has an all-white cast. Laurence, although himself a striver, looks down on Tony and Angela as parvenus because they have more recently bought their slightly smaller house on the same Romford estate: would that balance be diminished or heightened if one of them were perhaps Asian?
As a launch to Hornchurch’s ambitious season and development plans, it’s a fine start.