In the programme for Abigail’s Party, director Sarah Esdaile talks about how she has adapted the play to make it her (and the cast’s) own, rather than a karaoke version of the famous TV play starring Alison Steadman. I have never seen the TV version of Abigail’s Party, or if I have I’ve already forgotten about it, so I was able to look at it purely as a piece of theatre.
Perhaps you are like me, and have never seen Abigail’s Party. If you are like most of the rest of the audience and saw it on TV in the 70s you can skip this paragraph. Abigail’s Party is not about Abigail’s party. It is about the party that Beverley, friend of Abigail’s mum Sue, holds over the road from 15-year-old Abigail’s do. In attendance are Beverley, her husband Laurence, their new neighbours Angela and Tony, and Sue. The five have a drink, have a bit more to drink and have an argument, then some more arguments. The play ends with drama, but there is not a huge amount of plot to give away. It’s a very character and dialogue-driven play, set in one room in one evening.
Beverley (Jodie Prenger) and Laurence (Daniel Casey) have been married for around three years, as have Angela (Vicky Binns) and Tony (Calum Callaghan). Sue (Rose Keegan) has been divorced for about the same amount of time. Beverley has invited Angela (or Ange as she calls her) and Tony so they would feel welcome in their new, suburban Essex home. Sue is escaping the party she has allowed her teenage daughter to hold.
Created in 1977, Abigail’s Party has been described as a State of the Nation play. I wasn’t created until 1978, but the mannerisms, the décor (my parents had the exact same marble cigarette case as features in the play, and they didn’t even smoke cigarettes) and the claustrophobia of lower-middle class /aspirational working class life are familiar from my 1980s childhood in the north.
Perhaps we were a few years behind cosmopolitan Romford. Is Abigail’s Party a play about class? At the time it came out it was criticised for sneering at the lower middle classes. I think this is in part because Sue, the only solidly middle-class character, is the most likeable and well balanced (or least unbalanced), so she is the audience’s surrogate at this strange and awkward party.
Much of the humour and conflict comes from the contrast between Laurence (who wishes to impress Sue with his taste) and Beverley. Laurence puts on Beethoven, has prints of Van Gogh and Lowry and wants to go to Paris. He has leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare and tries to give his guests olives (only Sue likes them). Beverley plays the records of Demis Roussos too loud, envies Tony for having been to Madge-orc-ah and has a kitsch erotic print of a naked couple and a swan (which has been relegated to the bedroom by Laurence.) The “red bits” in stuffed olives remind her of “I won’t say what” (but her laugh tells us exactly what.) Both are, in their way, equally unlikeable. It is not Laurence’s aspirations that put you off him, it’s that it is all an act (he says of his bound Shakespeare “You can’t read it, of course.”) It is not Beverley’s lowbrow tastes that make her laughable, it’s how she treats others (especially Laurence.) Laurence tries to engage Sue in a conversation about how the area has changed for the worse. Sue says not much, although it’s a little more mixed. “Cosmopolitan!” says Laurence. “That’s a good thing,” says Sue. “That is a matter of opinion,” he replies. Laurence is an estate agent. Nouveau riche. He’s pulling the ladder up behind him. Sue, more confident in her place in their world, doesn’t have a problem with more of a mix. But more than class it’s about people. Unhappy people in unhappy marriages, trying to appear to be something they are not.
Tony and Ange have recently moved out of a furnished flat to the street, and still don’t have a bed. Ange is a nurse. Tony a computer operator (not a programmer, he didn’t need to “go to college and get exams” as Ange points out several times.) For much of the first act Tony has very little to say. Both he and Sue have a lot of “Yes” and not much else. However both do extremely well with that. Tony gives a very real air of increasing annoyance and menace, Sue brings us embarrassment and worry about the (almost certainly more fun) party going on at her house.
On Tony’s menace – Calum Callaghan puts him across as being a very unpleasant person. Ange tells us he isn’t violent, but he did say he wanted to Sellotape her lips together (which “isn’t very nice, is it?”) It is Laurence who brandishes a knife at his wife, who grabs her arm. But it is Tony who I think one day will give his wife a black eye. We don’t know what happened when Tony and Laurence went over to check on Abigail’s party (the cast know – one of the things director Sarah Esdaile did to give the cast ownership of their version of the play was have them improvise the off-stage parts) but we get the impression Tony did something awful. While Beverly and Laurence deserve each other, Ange is a nice woman downtrodden by Tony. Although she is lacking in confidence, she comes into her own at the end of the play.
Abigail’s Party is set in what Mike Leigh described as “theoretical Romford.” I have for a brief time lived in actual Romford, although I didn’t have the social cachet to be invited for crisps by someone like Beverley. Many of the laughs in the play come from the suburban 70s setting. The idea of getting a house down from £22,000 caused ripples of laughter in an audience, most of whom paid more than that for their cars. The marble cigarette case, the rubber plant, the bottle garden, and the cheese and pineapple on a stick all caused a nostalgic chuckle. But I believe that you could set it in modern times, shove in a few Brexit references and it would still work. Because while fashions and house prices change, people do not. I know a Beverley. I know a Laurence. I avoid Tonys. I may be becoming a Sue, and we’ve all been an Ange at some point.
All five actors give excellent performances. The set is a perfect 1970s front room and the costuming is just right. It is a very funny play. The dialogue feels natural, while being cuttingly hilarious. Whether or not you have seen the TV play, grab yourself a gin and tonic and go and see this version.
[Catherine Rogan February 2019]
Abigail’s Party is showing at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Monday 25 February to Saturday 2 March at 7.30pm, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm