For a theatre fan, living in London truly is a blessing. Not only are you able to pick and choose from the best quality performances and productions in the world on iconic stages graced by some of theatre’s finest, but if you happen to miss something special, you can bet your bottom dollar that you’ll be presented with the chance of seeing it very soon. This was the case for me and ‘Abigail’s Party’, written by Mike Leigh. It was playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year, but the play is so well known and so well done that it sold out too quickly for me to get a ticket. Needless to say, when I discovered that due to popular demand it was being reprised at the Wyndham’s Theatre, I snapped the hand off the internet ticket vendor (so to speak), and thanks to a great cast and production team I couldn’t be happier to have done so.
The play is a satirical comedy set in 1970s Essex, focusing on the three different tiers of the middle class. Beverly Moss and her husband Laurence are aspiring social climbers, who invite their new lower-middle class neighbours, Angela and Tony, over for drinks, along with upper-middle class neighbour Sue. Sue’s daughter Abigail is having a house party, which is the cause of much discussion and distress throughout the night. Whilst the gathering starts off quite stiffly and cold, it soon livens up with flowing alcohol, music and flaring tempers and frustrations. Over the course of the night Beverly flirts more and more overtly with Tony, and argues more passionately with Laurence, ending in a fatal last scene. Through the conversations shared between the characters the prejudices, competitiveness, fears and hopes and obsessions of the protagonists revealed to the audience.
The set design by Mike Britton was absolutely spot on, so credit is most definitely due. Picture a typical 1970s living room: garish orange and brown patterned wall paper, white rug, leather sofas and wooden storage shelves. There was even a colour changing fibre optic lamp. Tacky and distasteful, the set wonderfully reflected a social climber’s view on what can be considered classy. The lighting, it must be said, was also very appropriate, subtle and warm, inviting the audience into Beverly’s living room.
Now on to the cast. I’ve had the pleasure of watching Jill Halfpenny before in Legally Blonde at the Savoy Theatre, so I was expecting a great comical performance. She didn’t disappoint. Far from it, she really let loose and had fun on stage, and that reflected in the audience’s reaction to her Beverly. Humorous, bossy, slightly intimidating, and far from classy, the highlight of the performance was most definitely when Beverly starts dancing around the living room, making a fool of herself to everyone else but herself. Her constant nagging and berating of Laurence is both funny and irritating, but I have to admit that I actually felt quite sympathetic towards the character, who is definitely putting on a facade. Beverly is a character who aspires to climb the social class ladder, and perhaps feels a little unfulfilled by not having children, which Jill Halfpenny managed to subtly play to perfection. The bright green dress was an excellent costume choice too. Beverly’s character is always seeking to be the centre of attention and with that on, she most definitely was.
Andy Nyman’s portrayal of Laurence was a fitting opposite to Jill Halfpenny. Irritable and at times hilariously erratic, it was a pleasure to watch those two quarrel and attempt to score points against each other. There was something about the way Nyman played the role that made you pity him, being stuck with Beverly, but on the other hand it was evident on stage that deep down the characters have great affection for each other, even if they drive each other around the bend. I do feel however, that his performance in the final scene was a little too melodramatic for the rest of the play, and moved far too quickly for the audience to really feel any sympathy.
I found myself laughing most at Susannah Harker’s character, Sue. Divorced and bringing up a rebellious teenage daughter, Harker brilliantly conveyed Sue to be a bit of a walkover really, who, despite large amounts of alcohol, remains uptight and quite prudish and proper to the end. Evidently intimidated and overwhelmed by Beverly, there was a slight but not overly obvious tremor in Sue’s tonality which I thought was a touch of genius by Harker. Obvious discomfort in being invited to the party, and greatly dominated by Beverly throughout the play, Harker more than held her own on a stage packed with great talent.
Natalie Casey is definitely an actress to be watched. She caught my attention as soon as she walked on stage, playing the role of Angela. Uncouth, unrefined and slightly clueless, Angela is such a frustrating character, however amazingly this is never irritating. Quite the contrary, this trait is what makes her so humorous. Frankly, Natalie Casey did a wonderful job playing the still quite young Angela, who I feel is seeking acceptance into the lower middle class she has recently joined. Casey delivered her comical lines seamlessly and was so watchable on stage. Like Andy Nyman, I felt that she was a little overexcited and thus extreme in the final scene of the play. However this can be forgiven by her consistent performance throughout the rest of the production.
Joe Absolom’s role was the smallest, but that doesn’t reflect the talent that he contributes to the production. The character of Tony is a man of few words or strong opinions, but from Absolom’s performance I felt that this perhaps that is because he is overshadowed by his wife Angela, an interesting revelation to me half way through watching the show. The problem with Tony is that he marries too young and what Absolom conveyed so well was a silent and untold feeling of a lost youth, resulting in Tony’s apparent resentful and brooding nature.
The beauty of this play is that, as a situation comedy, it is able to effectively keep the atmosphere and attention of the audience whilst the action remains in one place. The actors on stage played off each other extremely well and that shows in the lack of a stand out performance; they were all just so well suited to each other. I’m giving this production of ‘Abigail’s Party’ four stars out of five. Mike Leigh’s writing is without a doubt truly funny, without being crude or forced as some comedies can be, but the manner of the production means that, I feel, it is only really at home in a more intimate theatre. The play and its characters are so relatable because they reflect the lives, problems and aspirations of so many of Britain’s middle class not just in the 70s, but today also. I understand why this production sold out so quickly at the Menier, and it is more than worthy of its West End run. I implore you to go and see it while there are seats available, or you will most definitely regret it!