Vicky Binns' Angela in a not Strictly moment with Daniel Casey's Laurence, while Beverly, Jodie Prenger, gets up close and personal with Calum Callaghan's Tony - Rose Keegan's Sue, wisely, sitting this one out.

Abigail’s Party

The Alexandra Theatre


Abigail will be 57 this year. I wonder if she still has parties? Probably not as exciting as the one when she was 15 though, with the snogging through the bay window and fondles in the garden – oh and her mum throwing up.

Not that her mum, Sue, was at the party mind, no, she was with her neighbours, Beverly and Laurence who had invited the road’s recent arrivals, Angela and Tony, around for drinks.

In one of life’s strange coincidences Sue was getting divorced three years ago about the same time Bev and Angela were getting married.

The divorce seems to have been reasonably amicable, the ex-husband and dad to her two children comes around once a week for a meal, all quite civilised; the present pair of marriages though? . . . perhaps less so. The tiny cracks at the start will widen to chasms as the night wears on.

Beverly, an ex-department store cosmetics demonstrator, is a large lady in every way, including her mouth, which, like the old Windmill Theatre, never closes.

She has knowledge of very little, yet an opinion on everything and expects, or manipulates, everyone to agree with her and won’t take no for an answer. She constantly offers drinks and cigarettes. Saying no to a drink in Bev’s world means you must want just a top up while giving up smoking, which was the case for Ange and Tony, means you must want a cigarette . . . eventually at the nth time of persuading.

Bev likes popular culture whether it is Demis Roussos, Elvis or mass-produced pretentious prints - her framed Wings of Love has been banished to the bedroom out of sight - and, in a nice 70’s touch, she uses Estée Lauder Youth Dew – no doubt Laurence is splashin’ on the Brut.

She also took a shine to Tony and makes no secret of it. It is a wonderful performance from Jodie Prenger who gives us a cringe-making Bev, but there is also a vulnerability there, even a sadness.

While Sue has two children and Ange wants children. it is a subject Bev skirts around. Somehow Bev’s life of fashionable leather, three-piece suite, expensive dining table and kitchen gadgets she has no idea how to use, seems emptier, more barren than she would have you believe.


Bev, in seductive mood, offers Tony a cheesy pineapple chunk from her hedgehog, no doubt hoping it has aphrodisiac properties

She seems to take it out on husband Laurence who, chalk and cheese, likes to show his intellectual sophistication, even superiority, by professing to like classical music, has Van Gogh and Lowry prints on the wall and leather bound, gold embossed complete works of Dickens and Shakespeare by the yard in their fashionable bookshelf and drinks cabinet room divider – another nice 70’s touch.

Laurence, in an attempt to impress Sue, and put down Tony, tells us, knowingly, that Shakespeare “can’t be read” implying it deserves more than that, although you suspect being read is not something any of the titles filling the shelves have ever been subjected to – they are there to give an impression rather than indicate a passion.

Henpecked at home, unable to compete with the whims and wants of the needy Bev he throws himself into his work as an estate agent in a wonderful, slightly manic performance from Daniel Casey.

Angela comes over as a bit of a timid character. None too bright, naïve and easily carried along on any path chosen by Bev. She loves the suite, and the table and the kitchen, showing an interest in all the material things that make up Bev’s rather mundane life. Angela is a nurse, which makes you wonder about the safety of her patients in a performance full of lovely touches from Vicky Binns.

Her husband is Tony, who has more syllables in his name than in most of his answers. He works in computers, but only as an operator as Ange keeps pointing out, cheerily, if rather dismissively, and he used to play for Crystal Palace but “it didn’t work out”. We never do find out why. He arrives appearing slightly angry with the world and gets angrier as the night goes on, particularly at Ange.

Not that that stops Bev, who flirts shamelessly with Tony all night; she is only missing a flashing neon sign saying “I’m available” whenever she sees him. Her suggestive dancing with Tony is the catalyst to open up the already lurking fractures and frustrations in both marriages led by the usually mild mannered Laurence. It’s a fine, belligerent performance from Calum Callaghan.

And sitting quietly by, among this game of unhappy families, is Sue, very much the odd one out in that she is normal, seemingly without hang-ups and whose only worry is for her daughter . . . and a little for her house after the tactless tales of doom from Bev and Ange – and Abigail’s party.

going out

Happiness is Beverly as she hears Laurence arranging to go out for work on her drink's evening

Sue was married to an architect and is traditional middle class rather than the up and coming lower orders she finds herself among. She has no real accent, unlike the Essex whine of Bev who plies her relentlessly with gin top-ups, despite constant refusals, which, inevitably, leads to a visit to the toilet and a conversation with Hewie.

Sue has not eaten, unlike the others who have had their tea – tea being a bit of a class giveaway there – and arrives with a bottle of wine, a sure sign she is expecting dinner, a middle-class habit, and not the more socially climbing event of drinks and pineapple and cheese on a stick.

It is a marvellously understated performance by Rose Keegan as the single mum of two who seems to be happily getting on with her life.

Mike Leigh’s black comedy is a commentary on the social mores of the 1970s among the rising band of the new middle classes with their aspirations and must have fashions and possessions, and director Sarah Esdaile and designer Janet Bird have done a splendid job in setting the 70’s scene.

Pride of place must be the cheesy pineapple hedgehogs with the upmarket touch of the half grapefruit being covered in foil. Of course, if Bev had been really up-market instead of merely trying to be, then she would have had silverskin onions as well as cheese and a pineapple chunks on her cocktail sticks, but we will let that pass. Then there is the fibre optic lamp and the Sparklets’ soda syphon, Coke in a glass bottle as well as the two tone Trimphone.

The play opens with Bev browbeating Laurence who is not only late but has to go out for work, and you immediately have the impression this is not the happiest of ships. The tension doubles when Ange and grumpy Tony arrived. While Bev and Ange prattle on, soulmates in fatuous drivel, the drink flows and Bev’s interest in Tony grows, as does the friction between the couples.

It all leads to its dramatic climax when the childlike, giggly Ange, becomes the efficient, focussed and very professional nurse, taking charge in a crisis, Tony now obediently taking her orders. In another role change Sue, smothered rather than mothered by Bev when she had her queasy moment earlier, is left supporting Bev, the self-assured, self-confident hostess who is falling apart, her frailties exploding as her already fragile world is coming crashing down around her.

There are times when you will squirm with embarrassment at characters, or at least traits you might recognise in people you know, or, God forbid, yourself, but this is a play packed with wall to wall laughs, with added bonus laughs for people of a certain age. It is a wonderful cast in a well-directed, and beautifully acted production.

A glorious, bittersweet comedy, Leigh’s 1977 play made it on TV, and 42 years on, despite its now period setting, it perhaps can still claim to be seen as a Play for Today. A modern classic. To 26-01-19.

Roger Clarke


Index page Alex Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre