Review by Jake Laverde
The first thing you’ll notice when you enter the auditorium is the incredible set design which brings you right into Beverley and Laurence Moss’s decadent lounge. Here, the audience is free to peruse the period details such as the marble lighter, the record collection and the (unread) complete works of Dickens and Shakespeare on the mantelpiece. The wallpaper looks like something straight out of a Pertwee-era Doctor Who and its colouring resembles an explosion, a hint at the play’s finale perhaps?
Mike Leigh’s era defining comedy of manners returns to the stage in this latest production directed by Vivienne Garnett and has lost none of its bite. Kellie Shirley steps into the role of the party hostess from hell Beverley this time round and throws herself gamely into the role. Swishing around in her orange chiffon dress as if she was on an imaginary catwalk with a cigarette casually dangling from her mouth. But Ryan Early as the doomed husband Laurence, ironically, dominates the stage with his performance resembling a classic sitcom husband. A ball of insecurity and contempt, his eyebrow permanently raised, constantly twitching and on edge. You can almost feel the vein in his forehead throbbing in the back row.
Emma Noakes plays Angela as a naive schoolgirl, compounded by her child-like party dress and looped pigtails (which bring to mind that other 1977 icon, Princess Leia). Matt Di Angelo really inhabits the monosyllabic Tony bringing a menacing undercurrent to his performance. And Barbara D’Alterio’s pained expressions as Sue say 1000 words.
The danger with reviving Abigail’s Party is that the audience only come for the ‘hits. Anticipating their favourite lines and moments. And with a play that’s as much a statement of its period, known as the decade taste forgot. Many productions have gone down the mockery route (though there’s still a laughter of recognition when the cheesy pineapple hedgehog is brought out). But it’s to Garnett’s and the cast’s credit that every moment comes alive and constantly holds our attention. Noakes especially brings a new layer of sympathy to Angela, trapped as she is in a deeply bleak marriage.
Despite the quality of this production, the question remains whether Abigail’s Party remains relevant 44 years on. In the era of a housing crisis, the idea of throwing a party for your neighbours seems like a pipe dream now. The Nouveau Riche, once a deserving target in the 70s and 80s, have been in decline for at least the past decade. The idea of buying a house in a well-off neighbourhood is an impossibility for the vast majority now. Of course, none of this is the fault of Mike Leigh or this production but I still couldn’t help but have this in the back of my mind throughout.
What can be said about this revival though is that it’s a solid and worthwhile take on a much-loved classic. And is recommended for old fans and newcomers alike with strong performances and direction throughout. The audience at the showing I attended were all invested, laughing along with the barb-filled dialogue and physical performances. The tonal shifts in the second half were handled neatly and the choice of having the audience become silent guests was an effective one. Even the music played in the intermission was an interesting choice, in particular Fleetwood Mac, a band infamous for its stormy history. As a fan of its 1977 TV adaptation featuring the original cast, I found a lot to enjoy here and small details came alive watching this in a live space. Most importantly, it held my attention throughout. This is one party you won’t want to miss out on.
Abigail’s Party is on at the Park Theatre until the 4th of December 2021 https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/abigails-party/book