Abigail's Party

21 - 26 January 2019

Mike Leigh | The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham | Directed by Sarah Esdaile.

Mike Leigh's cringe-worthy classic comedy makes a pleasing stop at The Alexandra Theatre Birmingham at the start of a national tour.

As with so much great writing, not much actually happens in this iconic play. At least not until the shocking and hilarious final five minutes. But as the gin and tonics disappear, everything starts to happen: barely suppressed marital tensions rise, tempers flare and the veneer of respectability is peeled back to reveal the contradictions and pains of the aspiring middle classes.

The action focuses on an awkward but highly entertaining evening in 1970s suburbia with Beverly and her husband Laurence as they throw a party for their newlywed neighbours, Tony and Angela. For those unfamiliar with this celebrated comedy of manners, we never meet 15-year-old Abigail herself. The deep bass of her party across the street can be heard throughout the evening as her mother Sue (a head-bobbing and tense Rose Keegan) anxiously wonders what might be going on at home. The humour, and the darkness, often arise from what is not said and in this performance the whole company use body language and gestures to great effect. We're all trapped in an often excruciating dinner party bubble, helped by the claustrophobic yellow glow of Janet Bird's authentic set, replete with spider plant, sheepskin rug and glass coffee table.

Comparisons with Alison Steadman, who originated the role of Beverly in the landmark 1977 'Play for Today' TV drama, are inevitable. Jodie Prenger rises to the challenge with a performance that never feels like an impression but satisfies with the recognisable voice of this most brutal hostess. She captures the grating manners and persistent haranguing of her guests with the perfect mix of smugness and superiority, at her best when with flirting with new neighbour Tony, performed with cool and occasionally threatening detachment by Calum Callaghan.

Beverly's estate agent husband Laurence (Daniel Casey) manages to be both pretentious and pitiable as the evening descends into domestic hell. Vicky Binns (Coronation Street and Emmerdale) plays Angela, wife to ex-footballer Tony, delivering a performance full of pathos as the ugliness of possible domestic violence appears.

This latest stage version of Mike Leigh's play, directed by Sarah Esdaile, doesn't always strike the right balance between humour and anguish. Too many laughs is certainly no bad thing, but giggling about putting red wine in the fridge and forgotten "light ales" came at the expense of the darker and more unsettling shades of the story at times. Despite this, the performances were strong and the evening whipped along in a 'pineapple and cheese stick' frenzy. Plenty of laughs for fans of the original TV drama and newcomers alike.

Abigail's Party is playing at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until 26th January before continuing a UK tour.


Abigail's Party