Ahhh, the glory days of 1977. Everything about Abigail’s Party exudes nostalgia. As soon as I saw the set, I remembered when the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought a top-of-the-range fibre optic lamp for the living room. How I loved that thing! I could sit in the dark and watch it change colours for hours, just like Beverly does. Mind you, I don’t miss the endless times when little bits of glass snapped off and stuck to the carpet until, inevitably, they got stuck in my feet. Serves me right for not wearing any slippers. Nostalgia always hurts somehow.
Nostalgia isn’t just the set, either. There’s an interview in the programme with director Sarah Esdaile, where she talks about the link between the character of Beverly and Alison Steadman, who first played her. Ms Steadman was part of the cast who, with the guidance and leadership of Mike Leigh, devised the play back in 1977; indeed, at the time, she and Leigh were married. This is what Ms Esdaile took from her discussions with Mike Leigh, prior to directing the play: “there is no point in wilfully trying to move Beverly away from [Alison’s] voice because her voice is all over it […] Alison is inextricably linked with Beverly’s voice because she has been such a fundamental part of creating that character.”
And, in performance, that is both a strength and a weakness of this production. In Jodie Prenger’s highly entertaining portrayal of Beverly, she’s emphatically not, I believe, giving us a simple impersonation of Alison Steadman, because that just wouldn’t work. I remember seeing an immensely tedious production of Victoria Wood’s Talent at the Menier ten years ago where the lead actor just pretended to be the late Ms Wood throughout – merely to confirm what we already suspected, that only Ms Wood could do Ms Wood.
However, Ms Prenger’s voice, channelling Ms Steadman’s, does give you a feeling of nostalgia, and you can’t help but wonder whether you’d have been better off in the comfort of your own home, watching the original BBC Play for Today on DVD? That’s the elephant in the room; can you improve on (or at least do an interesting cover version of) the original, particularly if you’ve seen said original loads of times? Seven years ago we saw Jill Halfpenny in a production at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Her performance was nothing like Alison Steadman’s; she completely made it her own. And it was an irresistible eye-opener: sexy, funny, tragic, brilliant. Far be it from me to tell Mike Leigh how to stage a production of Abigail’s Party, but actually you can leave Ms Steadman at the front door and go your own way.
You also get the feeling that Beverly’s strangulated vowel sounds as expressed by Ms Prenger aren’t entirely natural; and that, vocally, it’s a bit forced, maybe a little bit pretentious. Which is a shame, because the one thing Beverly is not, is pretentious. She lives for pleasure; for booze, for smoking, for Demis Roussos, for beauty products. She dreams of reclining on the beach at Palma Nova; for her, good taste is whatever you enjoy, and she never tries to be what she isn’t. She leaves the pretentiousness to her husband Laurence, whose desperate attempts to force Van Gogh and Shakespeare on their bemused guests eventually lead to his own personal tragedy.
What Ms Prenger does achieve, brilliantly, is Beverly’s physical presence; her self-indulgent loucheness, gin-and-tonic in one hand, cheesy pineapple sticks in the other, puffing at the cigarette that protrudes sensuously from those heavily made-up lips. And, as the night carries on, she subtly re-balances her stance and walk, as she tries to hide how progressively more drunk she has become, still hoping to maintain that ever-diminishing façade of attractiveness.
She also conveys Beverly’s inner sadness and vulnerability extremely well, forcing others to conform to what she wants because she can’t bear the thought that someone else knows better than she does; spitting out her vengeance against the hapless Laurence, who clearly can no longer bear the sight of her and she hasn’t a clue why.
Designer Janet Bird’s 1970s comfortable suburban living room is filled with all the must-have items of the era. Not only the sensational optic lamp, but also a hi-fi to die for, the perfect pot plants, and a plentifully stocked drinks cabinet concealed within the teak room-divider; everything is spot-on. It is a shame that the room-divider masks a brief, but important scene between Beverly and Laurence, where she tries to make up to him and he pushes her away. I can’t imagine anyone in the audience saw it properly at all, and that feels like a basic staging error. The dinky set sits in the middle of the ginormous Derngate stage and just about holds its own there, although it would have been hugely better in the intimate confines of the Royal Theatre instead. By my reckoning, only by sitting in the absolute centre of the rows do you have a chance to see everything on stage. We were in the centre block of Row F, but on the right aisle, and had no idea there was a bathroom off stage on our side of the auditorium. Similarly, those on the left side of the centre couldn’t see the kitchen. It doesn’t hugely matter for the action in this play, but purists might be disappointed.
Apart from Beverly, the rest of the cast bring their own approaches to their characters, stamping a sometimes unexpected individual authority on them. For example, Vicky Binns’ Angela struck me as being more socially adept and good company than in previous incarnations; she’s clearly very fond of Beverly (or at least, in enormous awe of her) and doesn’t really tell her off at the end when she’s getting in the way of her paramedic act. Calum Callaghan’s Tony is extremely non-communicative and sullen, and only once does he give us a facial expression to suggest he might be willing to thrust along with Beverly’s intimate dancing. The bitterness between Tony and Ange is palpable and excruciating; and their final scene, which is pure physical comedy, works a treat. Daniel Casey (totally unrecognisable as Sgt Troy from Midsomer Murders) is perhaps a little over-frantic in his interaction with the guests and hugely patronising when it comes to the subjects of art and literature; but then again he does have to share his house with a philistine.
But it is Rose Keegan’s characterisation of Sue that comes as the big revelation in this production. Normally seen as a dowdy wallflower totally obsessed with what her daughter might be doing at her party, this Sue comes from another planet. Completely aloof and with her mind on much more than just her daughter, you can almost see her words fragment into vacuousness as they leave her lips. She reminded me of a female version of Neil the Hippy in TV’s The Young Ones. Whether it’s a class thing, and she can’t bear to be surrounded by these awful people, or whether she’s on some kind of drug-induced cloud, I’ve no idea. But she’s totally out of it. And – strangely enough – it works incredibly well. I laughed at her performance more than I laughed at anything else in the play.
And that answers the question I asked earlier. Despite an assumption that you might know the play intimately, and despite the lingering Steadmanism of Beverly, there’s always something fresh to be discovered in a new version. Yes, a lot of its darker side gets lost in the quest for comedy. Still, for all its occasional faults, I really enjoyed this production. It’s already been touring for a few weeks, and after its visit to Northampton, it goes on to Blackpool, Aylesbury, Liverpool, Dartford, Manchester and Edinburgh in time for Easter. Time for a top-up?
Production photos by Manuel Harlan