Touring – reviewed at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There are plenty of laughs to be had in the production of Abigail’s Party which finishes an extensive UK tour this week at the King’s.
Not surprisingly, many of them are laughs of embarrassment. And if some of them come at the expense of a more serious examination of the play’s characters, this remains a very well crafted production.
Famously, Abigail herself does not appear in Mike Leigh’s 1977 play, being the organiser of an offstage teenage party. Her mother Sue is one of the guests – along with neighbours Angela and Tom – at a drinks party held by estate agent Laurence and his over-eager wife Beverly.
Most memories of the play – here presented by the Ambassador Theatre Group and Smith & Brant Theatricals – centre on Beverly. Notably, much of her portrayal in the original production (and its television adaptation later that year) by Alison Steadman has passed into legend. Because of Leigh’s way of working, Steadman had a great deal of input in the creation of the character, and it is accordingly very difficult to escape from her portrayal.
Jodie Prenger has a pretty good go at it, however, and her Beverly has an earthily organic quality. Daniel Casey, best known for Midsomer Murders, is excellent as the tightly-wound Laurence, with the character’s frustration expressed beautifully in the smallest of gestures. Rose Keegan displays commendable timing as Sue, able to display her character’s motivations and doubt from the smallest of responses.
Vicky Binns – a regular in both Coronation Street and Emmerdale – gives the naive Angela a touching quality. Both she and Calum Callaghan – as her gruffly monosyllabic husband Tony – are very good at hinting at their characters’ backstory, which surfaces in nasty hints such as her gratitude that anyone would consider marrying her, and the fact that he ‘won’t let her drive’.
Their relationship is particularly well depicted in the second half, where the spiral into the darkest of farces works better than the first act, where director Sarah Esdaile’s desire to strain after every possible laugh is too strong.
Janet Bird’s design is a spectacularly coherent depiction of 70s incoherence, all kitsch and brown slabs. The whole production, indeed, succeeds beautifully as an evocation of that era.
Which may, indeed, be its greatest drawback. At times the focus is on presenting a period piece, getting the audience to laugh at the foibles of another age, as if the misogyny, casual racism and ingrained snobbery on show have vanished along with the clothes.
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This does Leigh’s satire a disservice, and encourages us to laugh at the characters rather than with them, lending weight to those who consider the play patronising. Instead, the attitudes on display are sadly timeless. The idea that a theatrical hit would soon find itself on television now seems more alien than any of the prejudices or insecurities of the characters.
The aspirational roots of Thatcherism exemplified by Beverly and Laurence, born from a deep self-loathing as much as anything else, are underplayed. As a result, the production provides a great deal of fun and surface gloss, but fails to engage emotionally as it might.
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes including one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ.
Tuesday 16 – Saturday 20 April 2019
Evenings: 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed & Sat: 2.30 pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.
Jodie Prenger, Rose Keegan, Dan Casey, Vicky Binns, Calum Callaghan. Pic: Manuel Harlen