Abigail’s Party is happening at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week (Tuesday 16th to Saturday 20th April) and although neither we the audience, nor our on-stage cast ever actually get to see Abigail or go to her party, we do get to hear it at times, and are fully aware of its unfolding events. The brilliance of writing a drama with a title event that we never witness is perhaps one of the reasons that Mike Leigh’s wonderful slice of 1970s suburban life has remained so popular over the decades and is still a refreshingly entertaining work to enjoy today.
Abigail's Party was originally a play for stage and television devised and directed in 1977 by Mike Leigh, but many of us will remember it originally as being screened on BBC Scotland’s “Play For Today” series. In this production, director Sarah Esdaile has spoken with Mike Leigh (who made small revisions to this text) and Alison Steadman (the Beverly that so many of us still remember) and, although clearly making her own directorial marks on this work, has retained the very essence of the original work and stayed true to it; there is simply no getting away from the voice of Beverly in Abigail’s Party as it is the one thing that not only unifies the whole story, but often the most memorable thing to audiences over the years.
Sarah Esdaile has wisely made no attempt to bring this story forward in time and kept to the original story’s 1970s suburban setting. The attention to period detailing in our living room is impressive here (designer Janet Bird), like someone has lifted a period Ideal Home magazine cover and put it down on stage. Here, Beverly (Jodie Prenger) and her husband Laurence (Daniel Casey) live in a room of “of the moment” interior design, but as so often with set-design they don’t seem to have kept any earlier personal possessions. As always in these now period dramas the music is often the defining date reference and although we have Demis Roussos (can such an act ever be forgiven?), and Elvis 40 Greatest Hits albums being played, it is the opening scene’s music with Donna Summer and the iconic Giorgio Moroder production of “I Feel Love” that dates us to the later part of the 1970s as our suburban normality is offset to the background of the social changes of the Punk Era and our unseen Abigail.
Beverly and Laurence are a suburban couple full of socially upwardly mobile pretentions and here the part of Beverly seems to have just been tailor made for Jodie Prenger, who is outstanding in this role and giving us a Beverly that is as memorable for audiences now as Alison Steadman was for hers. The art of casting is so often an overlooked one but, when it is right, it works so well and here our full cast seem perfectly suited to not only their individual roles, but to the other characters in this story.
Mike Leigh is one of the best dramatists that this country has produced in a very long time and his skill here of creating such individually different characters to provide the tensions between them all is a pleasure to watch and listen to. There are, as with all the best stories, many other layers of interest being peeled away as our main drama unfolds, and it is interesting to watch how this wonderful script still always leaves enough time and space for the actors to add their own personal touches to their characters. Here there is room for Daniel Casey (Laurence) to be the perfect verbal sparring partner for Beverly and for Vicky Binns (Angela) and Calum Callaghan (Tony) to play out the unfolding lives of a couple in a marriage that so obviously should never have been. Stuck in the middle of these two squabbling couples is Abigail’s mother Susan (Rose Keegan ) who has left her nearby home for the evening to allow her 15 year old daughter to have her party. The discomfort of Susan thrust into this chaotic environment is obvious and Rose plays her role so well here. The volume of spoken words though are not everything here and although Tony has little to say at times what he does say with a few words tells us so much about his feelings towards Angela, and Angela’s “dance” with Laurence is a lovely little piece of visual on-stage humour.
Abigail’s Party is over 40 years old now and there are parts where this work does show its age a little. Here, our couples live in a time of casually accepted domestic psychological and emotional abuse (with hints of violence) that would not now be accepted, and Beverly’s obvious staying at home happily spending whatever money her husband Laurence gives her might raise a few eyebrows in some people’s minds 40 years later. Overall though, this work has (unlike so many others from this period) survived remarkably well over the years and so much of that success has to be down to the strength and individuality of the characters and the delicately balanced tensions underneath the humour that is so much a part of this story. This is not an over the top and in your face humour but often much darker and at times more like verbal jousting between Beverly, Laurence and their invited guests. Some of this humour is razor sharp and wielded with as much cutting skill as a surgeon’s scalpel.
The period theme here continues even during the interval as the music played (presumably coming from Abigail’s Party) gives us some punk/new wave classics and a couple of Ramones songs do go a little way into making up for that earlier Demis Roussos music.
Sadly, long gone are television formats like this and “Armchair Theatre” where writers, directors and performers had a public platform to produce quality drama that often challenged us and even brought about social changes at times (Cathy Come Home). Abigail’s Party is still a classic stage drama and reminder to us all of just what we have lost in television drama to the relentless media onslaught of low quality reality shows over the decades.
Review by Tom King