Review – Abigail’s Party, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th March 2019

Abigail's PartyAhhh, 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.

Beverly and LaurenceNostalgia 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.”

BeverlyAnd, 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.

The castHowever, 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.

Beverly and TonyYou 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.

Beverly Angela and LaurenceWhat 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.

LaurenceShe 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.

BeverlyDesigner 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.

AngelaApart 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.

SueBut 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.

DancingAnd 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

Review – Calamity Jane, Milton Keynes Theatre, 25th November 2014

Calamity JaneAs soon as I saw this touring show was coming to Milton Keynes, I knew I had to book straight away. Not only does it star one of our favourite performers, Jodie Prenger, but Mrs Chrisparkle was raised on a diet of Doris Day movies, with Calamity Jane being her favourite childhood memory. We only have to go out in a gentle breeze for her to suddenly burst forward with a chorus of “the windy city is mighty pretty….”, or to walk up a small hill for her sing “oh the Deadwood stage is headin’ on over the hills…” – I’m sure you get the picture. The young Miss Duncansby (as she was then) was never happier than when riding shotgun through those rough areas of New South Wales where she brought up, knocking back the sarsaparillas, dressed as a squaw.

Jodie PrengerFortunately times change, but her fondness for that old film and its songs is unshakeable. Consequently, it’s fairly amazing to think that, in all these intervening years, she’s never got me sat down to watch the film on TV, so I didn’t know what to expect from the story. If you don’t know the plot either, here’s a brief outline. Calamity Jane (Calam to her friends) is the tomboyest tomboy this side of the Black Hills of Dakota, and rides the stagecoach, shooting to warn off (I hope not to kill) those pesky Injuns with their arrows. She’s pals with Wild Bill Hickok, but has a yearning for Lt Danny Gilmartin that isn’t reciprocated. One day Calam has to ride into Chicago to bring back a famous actress that the men of Deadwood fancy something rotten, to appear at the Golden Garter saloon. Tom ListerNone of them has ever seen her, they only know her from her image in much lusted after cigarette cards. Thus Calam mistakenly brings back the wrong girl – a wannabe singer/actress – who gets found out, and it could have ended very nastily were it not for the fact that the wrong girl is a very sweet girl by the name of Katie Brown, who beguiles all the men, becomes best mates with Calam and indeed they end up sharing the same chalet. How does this menage à quatre sort itself out? That’s the show.

Jodie Prenger and Tom ListerI’ve rarely been in a theatre where the atmosphere of expectation and excitement was as tangible as it was in Milton Keynes on Tuesday night. The show opens with the curtain down, a banjo hanging from a hook in full view of the audience; on saunters Jamie Noar (I think) as Hank, takes down the banjo and gently starts to strum – and half the audience started humming along with him! I felt as though I was in another world. When the curtain eventually opens up it reveals the Golden Garter saloon, and it’s as Wild Westy as you could imagine. A shoddy little stage at the back, a plinky plonky piano up front, bare wooden chairs and balconies, and everyone dressed like they’re in a John Wayne movie. It’s a very convincing staging – the only criticism I would have is that there’s not a huge amount of space left for dancing, but the cast cope with that problem admirably.

Calamity Jane musiciansThis is a Watermill Theatre production, so you know what that means, don’t you? No separate orchestra or band, instead the cast members play the instruments themselves on the stage, integrating the acting and the music to perfection. The first time I saw this trick (in Chess) it didn’t really work that well for me – it made the stage very messy and created blocking problems. Since then I’ve seen it done a few times and they’re getting better and better at it. Indeed I recognised a few members of the cast from the similarly staged production of Fiddler on the Roof earlier this year – I guess if you have the skill of being both an actor and an instrumental soloist, you’re in luck where it comes to this kind of production. Suffice to say the musical performances were all terrific.

Phoebe StreetI must say that technically also this was a faultless performance by the cast. With all those instruments, loads of prop handling (guns, lassos, glasses, bottles), lots of choreography, special effects, costume changes and so on, they didn’t put a foot wrong. It must be rehearsed to within an inch of its life, yet it all still looks really natural. So, it was incredibly disappointing that the sound amplification in some of the big numbers let it down. To be honest, at times it sounded absolutely awful, especially before the interval. If it were an old hifi system, you’d say that the treble was turned up too much, creating a strange distortion. The instruments themselves sounded fine – but the voices could have been singing in a foreign language, it was that hard to make out the words. Sadly, this was most problematic for Ms Prenger, who’s got a belter of a voice and could have filled that auditorium without the need for a microphone.

Alex HammondDuring the interval I walked Mrs C over to the Merchandise stall and offered her a Calamity Jane mug, which she refused, a Calamity Jane hoodie, at which she looked daggers at me, and a Calamity Jane soundtrack CD which she said she would never play. Sigh; you just can’t help some people. Still she’s going to be most amused to find a Calamity Jane Stetson under the tree on Christmas morning.

Calamity Jane stageI don’t know if they tweaked some knobs during the interval but the voices were much clearer in the second half which was a huge relief. The amplification issue notwithstanding, nothing could detract from the standard of the performances, which were terrific and made the whole evening enormous fun from start to finish. Jodie Prenger has a wonderful stage presence and is the focal point for the whole show with her bubbly personality. She makes the most of all the comedy in the role, but is also very moving when it comes to the character’s inability to girl-up. Tomboy she may be, but inside she’s all woman. For me the highlight of the entire show was her incredible performance of Secret Love which gave me goosebumps – emotional, beautiful; it really soared.

Jon BonnerTom Lister as Wild Bill Hickok also gives a tremendous performance, mixing humour and pathos, and revealing a superb voice, particularly in Higher Than a Hawk, which had the audience so spellbound you could hear the proverbial pin drop. With Alex Hammond as Danny, the two leading men give a very entertaining “rivals in love” performance, and together with Phoebe Street’s charming performance as Katie, they’re quite a show-stopping foursome. The man sat behind me was really enjoying the show, getting totally carried away with the story. When Danny finally planted a smacker on Katie’s lips, he let out an involuntary “Go on, my son!” much to everyone’s amusement.

Martin McCarthyFinishing with an ending of almost Shakespearean comedy marriage dimensions, there are also very enjoyable musical and comic performances from Rob Delaney as Francis Fryer and Sioned Saunders as Susan. The rest of the cast all turn in excellent performances, and I was particularly impressed with Anthony Dunn’s hearty Henry Miller, Jon Bonner’s amusingly squeaky Doc, Paul Kissaun’s laid-back Rattlesnake and Christina Tedders’ bitchy Adelaid. Plus, as dance captain, Martin McCarthy as Joe is obviously keeping everyone on their toes with some really well executed dances, most obvious in the delightful curtain call which turns into a wonderful reprise-led hoe-down.

Rob DelaneyIt’s a really entertaining show that we both enjoyed tremendously. For me it was fascinating to see how all these well-known songs fit in to a story that I didn’t previously know; and the natural fun that comes from the story and the performances just seeps into your soul to send you home with a real feel-good feeling. The audience adored it – and I guarantee you’ll be humming The Black Hills of Dakota for days. There’s a long tour ahead, so you’ve plenty of opportunities to catch the show – it’s travelling all over England and Scotland between now and next July.

Sioned SaundersP. S. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a musical where the programme didn’t list the musical numbers. What’s all that about then? Makes reminiscing about it much harder, and you don’t know whereabouts you are in the show as it progresses. Minus mark for the programme writer! However, to make up for it, their marketing department did create this brilliant little trailer which should get your toes tappin’ in anticipatory glee!