Touring – reviewed at Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton
Mike Leigh’s classic Abigail’s Party is back in the theatre with its irrepressible hostess, Beverly Moss, handing out gin and tonics and cheesy-pineapple nibbles to the sounds of Demis Roussos.
This aspirational heroine of 1970s suburbia is currently touring the UK, dispensing her own hilarious brand of marital and lifestyle advice. This much revived comedy of manners is a real crowd-pleaser thanks to its central character, Beverly, a larger-than-life hostess with the mostess, who doesn’t think twice about flirting with her neighbour’s hubby.
Beverly is one of the great characters of 20th century theatre thanks to an unforgettable performance by the original star, Alison Steadman, who gave her a voice and personality that set the benchmark for future productions. And in this revival Jodie Prenger proves to be a brilliant mimic and comic actor, capturing Steadman’s voice, unique walk and timing.
It would be easy to criticise Sarah Esdale’s production for not bringing anything new to the table but why meddle with perfection? Prenger is priceless as Leigh’s monstrous creation, a formidable, sensuous yet superficial woman, who bullies and cajoles others into her way of thinking. She’s vulnerable yet intimidating, clearly disappointed by her marriage to estate agent Laurence, but still a determined Queen Bee with a taste for kitsch and entertaining.
Abigail’s Party caught the spirit of 1970s Britain and, despite it being very much of its time, it still strikes a chord with audiences today. I love this show’s nostalgia, from the 1970s soundtrack that greets theatre-goers, to Janet Bird’s spot-on, well observed, set design featuring the ubiquitous G-Plan, a fibre optic lamp, and leatherette pouffe (though no essential spider plant).
But Leigh’s dark look at society and marriage continues to be relevant as faceless housing estates are thrown up, the young working classes try to make the best of it, and relationships buckle under stress.
Abigail’s Party opens with blonde Beverly, hair in a beehive, with Dusty Springfield eyes and a low cut psychedelic cocktail frock which makes the best of Prenger’s stunning decolletage, writhing to Donna Summer’s I Feel Love.
She’s having a drinks’ do and has invited neighbours Angela and Tony, and Sue, whose 15-year-old daughter, Abigail, is throwing her own rowdy party over the road.
Laurence, trying to juggle work demands and Beverly’s shopping orders, is dashing in and out and receiving a regular tongue lashing from his wife.
When their guests arrive it’s obvious that Ang, a bubbly nurse, and husband Tony, a former professional footballer now a computer programmer, have their own problems.
It’s difficult to get anything out of Tone but he’s clearly wound up and ready to pop. As the comedy unfolds Calum Callaghan’s sizzling turn as the taciturn Tone becomes increasingly disturbing.
Little things that are said suggest an abusive husband who likes to dominate his wife and every word he utters speaks volumes for their fragile relationship.
But his darker side, only hinted at, doesn’t stop his eyes popping out on stalks at bold Beverly’s flirtations, her suggestive dialogue and clinches on the living room dance floor.
Rose Keegan gives an eccentric turn as the dowdy Sue. Every phrase she utters is accompanied by a swoosh of the head, resulting in strange pastiche of the usually frumpy, colourless, character.
It’s a bold and unusual interpretation but it had the audience in fits of laughter.
It was great to see former Midsomer Murders’ star Daniel Casey on stage. As Laurence he endorses his comedy credentials with a fine performance as the harassed and henpecked husband.
And former Coronation Street actress Vicky Binns is a hoot as Angela, a woman looking forward to a long and happy marriage but who is blind to the boredom in her husband’s eyes.
Great performances from this cast of five but Jodie Prenger steals the award for best leading lady in this funny, familiar comedy.
Running on the Derngate stage until tonight before touring to Aylesbury Waterside Theatre (March 18-23); Manchester Opera House (April 8-13); King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (April 16-20).
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