Beverly is having a little get together at her place and you’re all invited. Whisk yourself back to the late 1970s to enjoy an evening of cocktail snacks, constantly-refreshed gins and the sexy strains of a Jose Feliciano LP on the turntable providing a bit of atmosphere. A revival of Mike Leigh’s celebrated 1977 TV play ‘Abigail’s Party’ is currently embarked upon a nationwide tour and this week plays at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley.
Either side of an interval, all of the action takes place in real time in the living room of Laurence and Beverly’s neat and modern detached house. They have invited over new neighbours Angela and Tony, who are a little younger and own a smaller and less well-furnished house on the same street. They also ask Susan to join them. She’s a slightly older and more sensible neighbour, but her teenage daughter Abigail is having a raging party at her house and doesn’t want her fusty old mum interfering. The residual thumping bass of the music is a constant reminder of life going on elsewhere. Within the cosy microcosm of Beverly and Laurence’s living room, the 1970s suburban dream is held up to ruthless satire. The end result is devastating in its precision and killingly funny.
This production of ‘Abigail’s Party’ maintains the original 1970s setting, which is a good idea as it wouldn’t work now as anything other than a period piece. This gives set and costume designer Bek Palmer free rein to incorporate the most standout fashions of the day. Every detail from the costumes to the loud wallpaper and furnishings scream 1970s, brilliantly evoking the decade of dubious taste. This enables audiences to be transported back in time almost half a century.
Rebecca Birch convinces as your hostess Beverly from the opening moments when she has the stage to herself. She sexily dances in her swishing red dress as she sets up for the soirée. When husband and breadwinner Laurence (Tom Richardson) arrives home, briefcase in hand, he brings with him a cloud of anxiety and work-related stress that demolishes the walls of Beverly’s carefully-constructed fantasy. Over the course of the next two hours, and especially once the drinks start to flow, the character flaws of husband and wife, and every one of their marital weaknesses come to excruciating light.
Neighbour Angela (Alice De-Warrenne) and her husband Tony (George Readshaw) fare no better. With her irritating nasally voice, dull, unconnected stories and complete obliviousness to Beverly’s condescension, ‘Ange’ has even less social awareness than Beverly. She often speaks on behalf of her taciturn husband Tony, a frustrated ex-footballer turned computer operator. Sue (Jo Castleton) is the more refined guest who must wonder what madhouse she has walked into. Nevertheless, the lonely divorcee becomes a victim of Beverly’s impeccable hostessing skills as she is plied with cigarettes, nibbles and booze, despite her many protestations.
This production of ‘Abigail’s Party’ captures the mood and pacing of the original play. Be prepared to cringe with embarrassment at Beverly’s total lack of self-awareness. Everyone who is aware of Mike Leigh’s play will have their favourite moments. But what the show highlights well is that Laurence’s capacity to mortify his guests is no less impressive than his wife’s, and credit must go to actor Tom Richardson for finding inventive ways to reveal this. The only difference is that it tends to reveal itself in Laurence’s frustrated attempts to demonstrate his appreciation of culture and the finer things in life, which succeed only in revealing his ignorance. His final act of defiance is to replace his wife’s popular music LP with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; a gesture every bit as futile as his marriage.
The ensemble is excellent, each actor having moments to shine. We love how Jo Castleton portrays fear in Sue’s eyes every time Beverly offers her a drink, or Angela tries to make her comfortable in the armchair. The audience laughed a lot, consistently and often protractedly. We were in hysterics over Beverly’s seductive drunken dancing around Tony (especially once George Readshaw’s eye contact with Rebecca Birch switched from panic to wondering how far he might take it). No less funny was Angela’s ability to drink her gin with Hoola-Hoop crisps around her fingers. But it’s something of a cathartic experience witnessing the unravelling of the characters in ‘Abigail’s Party’. The play is pointedly disparaging about aspirational, suburban, middle-class families: precisely the kind of people you find in theatre audiences. The secret to the success and the enduring appeal of ‘Abigail’s Party’ is that everybody knows somebody just like one or more of the characters. And for a really honest interval conversation: ask your partner which character they see most of in themselves (I’m 100% a Laurence, for full disclosure). This can be as mortifyingly embarrassing as the play itself.
The show won’t be for everybody, as it can make for uncomfortable viewing. But this production ably reminds audiences why ‘Abigail’s Party’ is considered a modern classic. It paved the way for the likes of ‘The Office’, which similarly holds up a mirror and invites us to laugh at all of our pretensions and faults. In aligning itself so closely to the original TV play, the production also risks not quite emerging from its shadow. However, the night we caught, which is nearly half way through its national tour, revealed a show that is well-oiled, competent, and succeeding through actors who are firmly embedded in their characters. We also spotted enough fresh takes on the text to consider the play in a new light. Recommended.
Cast: Rebecca Birch, Tom Richardson, Alice De-Warrenne, George Readshaw, Jo Castleton Director: Michael Cabot Writer: Mike Leigh Theatre: The Churchill, Bromley Running time: 130 mins Performance dates: 19th-22nd April 2023 Book ‘Abigail’s Party’