Sarah Esdaile’s touring production of Mike Leigh’s 1977 classic suburban tragi-comedy Abigail’s Party invites audiences across the country to revisit the garish yet homely interior of loveless suburban couple Beverley (Jodie Prenger) and Laurence (Daniel Casey) as they host a get together for their neighbours. However, what I expected to be a nostalgia fuelled evening filled with hilarity fell flat with Esdaile’s direction feeling forced and farcical.
Honestly, I just didn’t find it funny. The jokes felt dated, some belonged firmly in the 70’s and the delivery from all involved was flat. A few references to rape felt very out of taste and were met with groans from the audience, along with the mention that Beverley was not permitted to drive by her husband.
It was almost as if the actors were relying on the audiences’ knowledge of the iconic TV version to coax out laughs. Admittedly this could also just be that I have no attachment to the references throughout and therefore the humour was not targeted at me. Judging by the demographic of audience who were laughing it may well be the case that Abigail’s Party works because of the nostalgia it creates for an older audience.
Prenger’s performance as pushy host Beverley (originally made famous by Alison Steadman) felt overdone and much of the humour was covered by an excess of laughter from Prenger. There was very little nuance to her performance and her portrayal made Beverley feel like a stock character rather than allowing us to see that she is a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who’s overzealous insistence of fun, pineapple and ‘Demis Roussos’ are covering the lack of fulfilment she has in her life.
To make matters worse Prenger’s accent, with the play being set in “theoretical Romford,” was a struggle to listen to. Harsh and extremely nasal it felt as if she was mocking the accent rather than it being a sign post of the characters working class background. Swanning around in a paisley dress, every movement and interaction felt forced as if she was playing for laughs, rather than letting the dialogue and character dynamics speak for themselves.
The second half picked up the pace, and Rose Keegan’s performance as luckless divorcee Sue drew a couple of genuine laughs, alongside Vicky Binns’ measured portrayal of eager-to-impress new neighbour Angela. Playing opposite Binns’ Calum Callaghan failed to match up as her unimpressed husband; from the offset his performance was bland and one-note throughout. There was no build to his aggressive outburst at Ange towards the plays finale, as from the offset he’d been unnecessarily harsh and acting almost like a bully towards his hapless wife. Daniel Casey’s performance as Beverley’s long suffering husband deserves credit as his characterisation was subtle but effective, but again this was lost in lacklustre direction and overpowered by Prenger’s excessively heightened performance.
The final nail in the coffin came when Vicky Binns threw a cigarette case to Prenger and Casey who were sat on the sofa centre stage and neither of them could find it. Binns, Keegan and Casey maintained composure and continued in character while Prenger and Callaghan corpse mid-scene and were unable to regain their composure for some time. This was met by rapturous from the audience but felt hugely unprofessional and ruined any tension that had been building towards the climactic scene final of the play in which the tension reaches its peak and ultimately leads to Lawrence meeting an untimely end and having a heart attack.
The only redeeming feature was the absolutely wonderful set design. Janet Bird’s attention to detail was outstanding and the pre-set which made it appear that you were a neighbour looking in through the window of the house and then lifted away to reveal the full extent of the interior was ingenious. The period detail was astonishing; from geometric print curtains to a bookcase/cocktail cabinet and the fibre optic light all aided the feeling that you really were getting a sneak peek inside a 70s living room.
Overall the script and staging felt stagnant and in all honesty should perhaps be left in the 70’s and remembered nostalgically by those who witnessed the original. Unfortunately unless it were to be revisited for the current decade I’m not entirely certain of the life span of Mike Leigh’s classic.