If you’re old enough to have lived through the 1970s like this reviewer, then you probably would have gone to the kind of awful parties depicted in Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party but more importantly, you probably would have watched the TV version (there were only three channels at the time) which was shown on BBC1 in November of that year. However, it was originally written for the theatre and was first performed in April 1977 at the Hampstead Theatre and now just a few miles away and 44 years later, the iconic “Abigail’s Party” is being revived at the Park 90.
The action takes place somewhere in Essex (possibly Romford) at a party being thrown not by Abigail but by Beverly and Laurence, ostensibly to welcome new neighbours Angela and Tony to the street and they’ve also invited next door neighbour Susan whose teenage daughter Abigail is having a party too. There’s not much plot to speak of as Leigh’s intention in the play which like all of his work came from extensive improvisations between the cast, was to show how the lower middle class aspires through materialism to move up in the world although they’re not sure how to achieve it. During the play, there are all the tropes of the period such as pretending to know about wine, serving pineapple and cheese on toothpicks, having awful art on the wall and buying books by the yard.
The real problem with reviving the play now is that it’s a real period piece and is now 44 years later, a bit creaky around the edges. Also, since then we’ve seen plays and TV programmes that explore the same subject but with the sharper eye that comes from time; imagine what a play from 1933 would have seemed like in 1977 – old fashioned and fraying around the edges almost certainly.
The other problem for anyone who’s familiar with the TV version is that the performances in this production just don’t match up to the originals. Alison Steadman who starred as Beverly in 1977 was mesmerising as the hostess whose withering put-downs and waspish comments drove the play along and whilst Kellie Shirley is good – she even looks a little like Steadman – her portrayal just doesn’t have the cutting edge that Steadman had and her remarks just drop without having the audience shudder at what Beverly is saying and her stinging comments to the other characters just don’t have the bite they need in order to get more laughs. The rest of the cast, Ryan Early (Laurence), Matt Di Angelo (Tony), Emma Noakes (Angela) and Barbara D’Alterio (Susan) like Shirley are all good but lack that little something that would give the production a bit of brio and energy but maybe this was hampered by the fact that there was an unnecessary interval. Apart from selling some more drinks, there was no real need in an 85-minute show to have an interval that broke up the action, unbalancing the production with a 50-minute first act and a 35 minute second. If audiences can sit through the likes of Leopoldstadt and Follies (both well over 2 hours without a break), then there’s no reason why they can’t sit straight through a much shorter production.
However, there is one big star of the production and that’s Beth Colley’s amazing set. In the intimate space of the Park 90, the audience is engulfed by the brown and beige 70s wallpaper and along with the horrible orange leather three-piece suite, the coffee table, beaded curtain and big pendant light, Colley has it spot on and the set becomes the sixth character.
There’s a saying that if a musical isn’t great, you leave the theatre singing the set. In the case of this production of Abigail’s Party, I came out singing the praises of Beth Colley and her marvellous set design.
Review by Alan Fitter
Mike Leigh’s iconic comedy-drama returns to the London stage with former EastEnders star Kellie Shirley playing Beverly, and Ryan Early (Lee Bryce in The Archers) playing her angst-driven husband Laurence. The 1970s comedy of manners, full of new-found suburban pretensions and social aspirations, was a huge hit when it premiered at the Hampstead Theatre, and the TV adaptation has been voted as one of the greatest British TV programmes by both industry professionals and the public.
Beverly and estate agent husband Laurence are happily ensconced and living the dream in suburbia. They know what records to play, what art prints to buy and what wine to drink. And Beverly just can’t resist the temptation to spread her knowledge and help improve the lives of their neighbours, Tony, Angela and Abigail’s Mum, Susan. What better way to help out than to invite them all for drinks and titbits?
Directed by Vivienne Garnett
Written by Mike Leigh
Set design by Beth Colley
Lighting design by Pip Thurlow
Costume design by Neil Gordon
Kellie Shirley, Ryan Early, Emma Noakes, Barbara D’Alterio
10th November – 4th December
Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP