Mike Leigh’s classic play, written in 1977, is set in 1970’s suburbia where Beverly and her husband Laurence are hosting a drinks party for their neighbours. There is plenty of alcohol, an array of cheesey-pineapple savoury bites, olives and Demis Roussos on the record player. As prejudices are unmasked and tempers flare, the evening can only end in disaster...
“A night of continuous guilty pleasure” – Daily Telegraph
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Following closely in the footsteps of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends, Lindsay Posner’s revival of Abigail’s Party takes us back in time once again to an era when wallpaper made you dizzy and fibre optic lamps were the latest must-have accessory.
Mike Britton appears to have based the colour scheme for this house in 70s ‘theoretical Romford’ on the bright orange-brown tan for which Essex is so renowned today. If you add to this a few plates of nibbles, a hell of a lot of gin and the dulcet tones of Demis Roussos, you have the ingredients for… an interesting gathering.
It is unlikely you will ever see a more assorted bunch of people on stage at the Wyndham’s theatre or indeed on the reality TV show Big Brother. In fact, when Mike Leigh first dreamt up the idea of putting these individuals in a room together, it was as if he were planning a similar sort of social experiment himself.
Set in the living room of Beverly and Laurence’s suburban home, the gruesome get-together at the centre of Leigh’s 1977 comedy isn’t what you’d expect from a play entitled Abigail’s Party. While 15-year-old Abigail’s festivities remain safely on the other side of the wall, the neighbourly drinks party we are faced with reveals the comic and chaotic lives of five adults who make the life of even the most deeply troubled of teenagers look like a walk in the park.
Angela and Tony, an unlikely couple from one of ‘the smaller houses’ on the street, are worlds apart from middle class divorcee Sue, who would almost certainly feel more at home with the crowd of raving teenagers at her daughter’s shindig than she does at Beverly’s gathering. Then there’s Beverly herself, a house proud hostess whose first instinct upon being presented with a bottle of red wine is to put it in the fridge, and her husband Laurence, whose vibrant personality is still no match for her own overwhelming presence.
Natalie Casey oozes hilarity as the graceless Ange who conjures silences quicker than her host does gin and tonics, while Joe Absolom’s pent-up performance as her hot-tempered husband does little to fill the conversation’s gaping holes with his sporadic grunts of affirmation. The only polite thing left for Susannah Harker’s sweet-spoken Sue to do is to reach for her glass, but it is only to her detriment that she attempts to escape from her barbaric surroundings in such a way.
The gathering is socially awkward to say the least. Andy Nyman is endearing as the loveable Laurence who does his best to keep the party going, but it is Jill Halfpenny’s Beverly who comes to the fore, like the cocktail stick through her cheese and pineapple nibbles, holding it all together; her seductive advances and ridiculous catchphrases filling the awkward silences.
It is undeniably a hilarious predicament of a party but it is the underlying tragedy in these individuals’ lives that permeates the production. After all, unhappy marriages and unfulfilled lives remain at the heart of Leigh’s comedy.
Cheese and pineapple nibbles, gin and the squeamish feeling of an evening falling apart; Mike Leigh’s 70s hit Abigail’s Party has returned to the London stage with a brown-tinged bang. Following success at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the Lindsay Posner-directed production has moved its dodgy décor to the Wyndham’s theatre, where it plays throughout the summer.
We caught up with the cast – Jill Halfpenny, Joe Absolom, Susannah Harker, Andy Nyman and Natalie Casey – to find out about the play, the 70s and their own party experiences, which with poetry, ejections and Pol Pot are… interesting.
Halfpenny: Its themes are still as relevant today; our relationship worries and fears are still very prevalent in society today.
Absolom: I suppose haircuts and fashions change through the years but the way humans interact doesn’t really, and watching other people’s awkward social gatherings will always be better than experiencing your own!
Harker: Recognition. Observation. Situation. The play is timeless in its themes of relationships and human interaction. But it also perfectly captures the Seventies, which appeals to our collective nostalgia.
Nyman: Firstly, amazing writing and secondly, the themes are timeless – unhappy marriages, over aspirations. As real today as it always was.
Casey: It’s a play about the human condition. I think a lot of people think it’s a play that paints the working classes in a negative light but it actually paints human beings, all human beings, in a dark shade.
Halfpenny: She’s very unhappy and lonely, but ultimately self-obsessed
Absolom: Tony is almost six foot, blue eyes, brown wig, blue polyester suit, doesn’t say much, supports Crystal Palace.
Harker: Poor Sue! Distracted. She couldn't be further away from Beverly's drinks party. All her thoughts are over the road at her daughter’s teenage party and she is in a state of anxiety about it. She is on for one of those evenings we all recognise when she really doesn't want to be there but she can't get away. Sue is in a state of anxiety when we meet her for the evening and it just gets worse!
Nyman: Laurence is a man trapped in the wrong life, an estate agent who’d rather be an art critic.
Casey: Ange is a woman with Asperger’s who’s married to a thug… in a nutshell!
Halfpenny: “Take another one Sue, save me coming back”
Absolom: “GEEEEEET UPPP!”
Harker: "Oh yes it's New York isn't it?" – about the fibre light which is definitely not New York. The audience doesn't find it funny very often but it’s my own private favourite.
Nyman: “What… vamping?” (Makes sense in context)
Casey: “Beverly…BE QUIET!”
Halfpenny: Probably when I was a teenager and I always left a party five hours later than I should have, just in case I missed out (I never did)!
Absolom: Being a self-employed actor in a company of one means my Christmas parties are always a bit rubbish.
Harker: I once tortured all my friends and family by insisting they write a poem and perform it. I thought it was a good idea at the time but it was sort of agony, not least because I had to do it too. Never again!
Nyman: A dinner we once had where I threw someone out!
Casey: I’ve never been to a bad party. Come to think of it, I’ve never been invited to a party.
Halfpenny: At the minute my two sisters, Mam and Dad and my two close friends as I don't see any of them nearly enough!
Absolom: Noel Gallagher, Keith Richards, Bruce Parry, Miles Davis, Ray Winstone, Sir David Attenborough.
Harker: Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, Picasso, Oscar and Constance Wilde, Katherine Mansfield.
Nyman: My mum and dad and all of my grandparents. I can think of nothing better.
Casey: President Nixon, Tony Blair, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and Nikki Minaj. You know, all the greats.
Halfpenny: The Farrah Fawcett hair, it suits everyone!
Absolom: Smoking in pubs and Miss World contests.
Harker: The fibre light.
Nyman: My bike – an orange Raleigh Grifter.
Casey: The Apollo Space programme. Humankind needs an epic dream.
Halfpenny: My four year old boy Harvey.
Absolom: Frasier and Facejacker. Buh!
Harker: Recognition. Observation. Situation. And a sense of humour… any kind.
Nyman: Funny things… of course.
Abigail’s Party is taking part in Get Into London Theatre summer 2012, offering reduced price tickets between 21 June and 1 September. Tickets must be booked by 31 May. Book now!