Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

abbi cast

Martin Walker as Laurence, Sharon Clayton as Angela, Daniel Burnham as Tony, and standing, holding court as usual, Eliza Harris's Beverly. Pictures: Alastair Barsley

Abigail's Party

Highbury Theatre Centre


You get the feeling that from the moment Beverly announced her arrival as a baby her mouth has never been closed or silent – you could even believe she carries on talking in her sleep.

She has an opinion on everything and everyone, ignores no as an answer, and manages lashings of self-satisfaction with a hint of superiority, while the brief pauses between her estuary English sentences seem to be filled with gin and tonic. In short Bev is rather like a rather annoying, conversational equivalent of muzak

It’s a lovely performance from Eliza Harris as the rather whiny, would-be queen bee, and the organiser of the alternative Abigail’s party.

We are in some part of Essex and Bev has invited the newcomers to her kingdom of Richmond Road. Angela and Tony moved in to No 9 two weeks ago and are expected shortly to a drinks and nibbles evening.

She has also invited Sue from No 16 whose 15-year-old daughter Abigail is having her first teenage party (the party in the title if you were wondering). Sue lives just down the road from Bev, who lives in No 13, which is a larger house than No 16, according the Bev, if you are interested.

We open with tension though as Bev’s estate agent husband Laurence not only arrives home late, only just beating the guests, but has to go out again to collect keys from a client. Bev is less than impressed.

Martin Walker’s Laurence seems an affable chap at first but as the evening wears on the hairline cracks in relationships start to widen to chasms and Walker flares into convincing flashes of anger.

Laurence sees himself as cultured and sophisticated with a penchant for art – or as this is the 1970s, Athena prints. He has a bookcase full of the leather bound works of Dickens and the plays of Shakespeare, books you suspect are still waiting to be read, and a liking for classical(ish) music.

It has become in his mind a sort of urbane weaponry to mock Bev’s more earthy tastes of the likes of Elvis and Jose José Feliciano, and her liking of kitsch mass produced art doomed to fail the test of time.

sue as well

Daniel Burnham's Tony in a less romantic moment with wife Angela played by Sharon Clayton while Valerie Tomlinson's Sue looks demurely away.

It also gives Laurence a chance to show off to Sue – and is a useful put down to Tony.

Ah yes, Tony, a man of few words, ex-pro footballer who now works in computers – just an operator as Ange keeps pointing out. That is enough for a one-upmanship leap by Bev, whose now well-heeled brother is in computers and almost the equivalent to Bill Gates to hear her talk.

Bev makes no secret of the fact Tony is fanciable, which leads to a little flirting – little initially.

It seems there is a correlation between the level of alcohol in Bev and the level of flirting.

You suspect Tony’s education didn’t extend much beyond kicking a ball and Daniel Burnham gives us a strong silent type who is perhaps silent as he doesn’t have much to say. Football is a team game and so it seems is flirting as he joins in somewhat enthusiastically much to the annoyance of Laurence and it soon becomes clear there is no love lost between them, hence the ersatz intellectual Laurence’s put downs to what he sees as a less cultured foe.

Angela is a nurse and in the capable hands of Sharon Clayton could best be described as intellectually challenged, or as this is the 1970s, thick. She hangs on Bev’s every word, and by jove, there are a lot of them to hang on to, and she does her best to give her full, whole-hearted support to both Gordon's and the tonic industry. She also has a tact by-pass, such as when she points out that both she and Tony and Bev and Laurence got married three years ago, the same time as Sue was getting divorced. She keeps that memory alive by prodding Sue regularly about her failed marriage.

She also has a strange habit of being really proud of Tony in some ways with a need to put him down in others.

Valerie Tomlinson’s Sue is the quiet one. Tony might be quiet at first but you suspect he is merely brooding, Sue is quiet because . . . well that’s the way she is. She is worried about her daughter, the party, and she is the only one who hasn’t dressed for the occasion, nor has she eaten.

The feeling is she was expecting to just pop round for tea and somewhere to hide while her daughter had her party – not arrive to a foodless soiree of booze and cheese and pineapple on sticks.

Angela had given up smoking but that was merely a challenge to Bev to persuade her to take one

There is no trace of an Essex accent, no boasting, no recriminations. Her divorce seems to have been amicable, she and her ex get on, and she might not be ecstatic but is not unhappy with her life and family, Abigail and 11-year-old Jeremy.

Asked what she would like to drink she says sherry, but gets a G&T, Bev’s question being no more than a show of politeness, and then, despite declining each time, she suffers endless top ups and fresheners, leading to the inevitable result of too much – unwanted – booze on an empty stomach. A call to Hewie on the porcelain telephone as they say.

It seems Sue is he only one vaguely content with her lot. Bev wants for nothing, at least in a material sense, with a new kitchen with all the latest gadgets, which you suspect she never uses, Laurence throws himself into his work, and superficial culture, you suspect to avoid too much time with what he sees as a vacuous wife.

Yet behind Bev’s theories on everything there seems to be almost a sadness, rather like Martha in Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?, almost as if she envies Sue with her two children, the things she hasn’t got and can’t buy.

Tony you feel sees fidelity as, at best, negotiable and although we never discover why his time at Crystal Palace ended, perhaps he has found little to be happy about in his life since then, and there seems to be an underlying anger in him.

Angela is in awe of Bev as a symbol of what she sees as success such as a rotisserie in her oven, even listening with rapt admiration as she is told by Bev how to apply lipstick, a method best not tried at home unless you have been to clown school.

While she comes over as an airhead for much of the play at the moments when it matters, such as Sue being ill and the dramatic finale, Angela the professional, competent and authoritative nurse kicks in. Two ery different sides of the same person.

Mike Leigh’s play started life at Hampstead Theatre back in 1977 and although it shows its age in some respects, a house in Essex for £21,000, for example, it survives as a play of its time, a time with an emerging new middle class, all brought to life by an excellent cast who break down a social gathering into a battleground with a tragic consequence.

Malcolm Robertshaw’s set has a 1970s feel about it and director Ian Appleby has hardened the characters with the men more combative and aggressive, for instance, with the breakdown of the two relationships a contrast to the calmer life of the divorced and outwardly content Sue.

Abigail’s party will be rocking Richmond Road to 03-02-24

Roger Clarke


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