21st October 2014

Abigail’s Party

Curve – 17th October to 8th November 2014
by Mike Leigh
Director: Suba Das
Starring Natalie Thomas

Our rating:  ****

A successful first night for the iconic 70s theatre, film and TV classic Abigail’s Party saw every seat in the studio auditorium filled and a new theatre-in-the-round stage set up for tonight’s production, directed by Suba Das and starring Natalie Thomas in the role of Beverly.

The set of Abigail's Party Photo by Pamela Raith Photography
The set of Abigail’s Party
Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

Set in Walthamstow, London on Saturday 16th April 1977, the plot centres around a party which is taking place a few doors away from the house of Beverly and her husband Laurence. The party that gives the play its title is being run by the 15 year old daughter of Sue (played by Jackie Morrison)  who has been invited to join Beverly, Laurence and some other neighbours for an evening of drinks and nibbles. The blaring music from the party down the road can clearly be heard in the background.

New neighbours Angela and Tony join the evening and the Gin and Tonics start to flow, not to mention the cheese and pineapple pieces on tooth picks. On yes, some of us are old enough to remember putting on offerings like this, in the seventies! Smoking was acceptable, if not a requirement, in those far-off halcyon days. Guests were offered cigarettes and cigars and smoke filled the living room as they relaxed and listened to records on the gramophone player.

Natalie Thomas as Beverly Photo by Pamela Raith Photography
Natalie Thomas as Beverly
Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

Abigail’s Party is a very funny play – whether you are laughing with them or at them – the humour has not lost its edge and its sense of irony over the years. The play made its debut at the Hampstead Theatre in April 1977 and attracted plenty of reviews and comment. The play was screened on TV in November 1977. Described by one reviewer as ‘the most painful hundred minutes in British comedy-drama’ and placed 11th in the British Film Institutes’s 100 greatest British television programmes, this is a play that many will remember, not least for the accents used by the actors to portray the characters from London and the surgical precision of its script as it unravels the satire on the rise of the new middle classes.

Emily Head, Natalie Thomas and Jackie Morrison Photo by Pamela Raith Photography
Emily Head, Natalie Thomas and Jackie Morrison
Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

Tonight’s production saw the set placed in the middle of the auditorium with the audience seated on all four sides – something not seen before at Curve. This worked incredibly well.  The casting was spot on, all the actors fitting their parts likes gloves. Natalie Thomas gave a superb performance as Beverly, the host of the evening, wafting around the room in her full length pillar box red frock as she plied her guests with drinks, cigarettes, nibbles and large slabs of snobbery and one-upmanship. Her husband Laurence, played by Patrick Moy, rushes around at high speed, driven by nerves and a taught sense of exasperation at just about everything that is happening in the room. To say that Laurence is a ‘bag of nerves’ would be an understatement. He acts like a volcano about to erupt but firmly plugged with a weight of social decorum and fierce determination to appear refinely mannered.

Set designer David Woodhead has done an impressive job of gathering together the great period pieces of the time, from the open-out drinks cabinet (with its internal strip light so beloved by G-Plan) through to the ever-so-seventies fibre optic table lamp. The leather-look corner unit sofa with its white fur-effect cushions and the glass top coffee table have been lovingly collected to give the party its authentic 70s-chic ambience.

Emily Head and Cary Crankson Photo by Pamela Raith Photography
Emily Head and Cary Crankson
Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

The first night audience was clearly delighted with this production and with the play,  as the laughs poured forth, and people say with captivated expressions on their faces. Spending two hours with only one set, five characters and a plot that, superficially at least, is confined to one group of people talking in a  room, you would have thought that this piece of drama could never work. You would be wrong. The dialogue is the action, the conversation is the plot. The second half wends its way to the surprising denouement in a way that is surrealistic, leaving behind the genteel but ridiculous chatter and painful back-stabbing innuendos and thinly disguised personal slurs of the first half. It is a play that shares everything of the lively characterisation and scintillating wit of Noel Coward or Oscar Wild with the demonic satire of Shaw or Chekhov. As Mark Fisher comments in the programme notes it is ‘car-crash comedy’ but not comedy in the style of sitcom farce or American wise-cracking soaps, but in the more British tradition of insightful and invective social observation. What we see on stage is more like an episode in the Big Brother house, natural behaviour that displays who people really are and what they actually say – warts and all. The play shares a lot in common with TV’s Royle Family or even The Kumars in its ability to parody life from one particular social niche.

Patrick Moy as Laurance Photo by Pamela Raith Photography
Patrick Moy as Laurance
Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

I enjoyed Abigail’s Party at Curve; it was as spell-binding as it was funny; it was as acerbic as it was pathetic (in the sense of pathos.) Joyously well acted, engagingly designed and spell-bindingly delivered, this is a play that drama-lovers will not want to miss.

See also:

Shakespeare for the Facebook Generation (Romeo and Juliette)

Opera in Leicester

Upstairs at the Western’s autumn season

Rent, the musical