abigail

Party time in suburbia. Susan, with Laurence and Melanie, seated with Beverley holding court an Tony pouring drinks. Picture: Mark Sepple.

Abigail’s Party

Derby Theatre

****

I saw Abigail’s Party when it appeared on television in 1977, the year it was written, some forty one years ago, watching as a teenager. It received generous reviews. I loved it. I also found it very uncomfortable watching.

It shone a bright light on the world around me, one of aspiration amidst a crumbling economy. Played out on a single, period set, it is about five characters, and their place in North London suburbia. An exploration of manners, people, and their foibles.

I was curious to see how well it had survived approaching half a century on. This revival is a co-production between Derby Theatre, Queens Theatre Hornchurch, Wiltshire Creative and Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg.

Thankfully, director Douglas Rintoul does not re-invent the setting, dialogue or conceit. The production depends upon its cast who rise to the challenge admirably. Beverly is the star turn, beautifully, and spikily played by Melanie Gutteridge. Blonde, and sassy, dressed in a slinky halter neck print long evening dress, and fashionable again wedge heels, she is the pulse of the production, her brash pronouncements a wafer- thin veneer for her underlying vulnerability. Her extended solo presence at curtain up imposes her physicality on what is to follow.

Lee Newby’s stage set perfectly captures the 1970’s as much as the detail of Mike Leigh’s script verbally remembers a bygone age of Mini’s and Bacardi and coke. Christopher Staines infuses Beverly’s husband Laurence with a touch of Leonard Rossiter, and a dash of John Cleese, as he balances Estate Agency, and a high maintenance wife with a low level intellect. Amy Downham has less luck than Melanie Gutteridge with the Wardrobe Department, sporting a garish, short dress, and mustard tights which Gok Wan would not approve of in the 21st Century.

She does however have the most room to develop her character from a skittish ditsy airhead to a woman whom you can rely upon when it counts. Her husband Tony, played by a gloriously statuesque Liam Bergin, is all facial and body expressions, with lines so sparse they were surely learned over breakfast.

The most interesting and problematic character is divorcee Susan, mother to the eponymous Abigail from whose house party she is escaping. Susie Emmett imbues her with a quiet desperation as events unfold before her. Is she watching on disdainfully? Or is she a victim too?

Rights issues have caused the music to be altered from the original, but is nonetheless satisfying, and faithful to the era. The sounds of Demis Roussos conjure the slow dance, the Sex Pistols God save the Queen rumbles from fifteen years old Abi’s house party beckoning in a new musical hegemony.

At a hundred minutes running time, the play does not outstay its welcome and prospers as a revival, rather than a reinvention. It continues until 20th October, before completing its tour at Salisbury Playhouse and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg.

Gary Longden

03-10-18 

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