Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Abigail’s Party – a great production of a classic play with lush performances to match the 1970s décor! (The MAC until 5 May)

Into an orange and brown set that accurately captured trendy late 1970s décor strides Beverly, decked out in a floaty dress from similarly warm-toned material. A modern woman confident in her white shag pile rug-covered environment, slowly shimmying around the room setting out cheesy nibbles and making sure the drinks cabinet is in order.

Beverly’s husband Laurence is a hard-working estate agent with an faux penchant for the finer things of life (art, books and classical music) while his wife’s social climbing is rooted in more shallow pursuits.

Into their modern abode – brilliantly created by designer Diana Ennis – come new neighbours, a young couple Angela and Tony, and neighbour Sue whose unseen fifteen year old daughter Abigail is hosting a party next door.

What follows is a brilliantly observed examination of competitive aspiration, gender politics, and the culture of misogyny: a window into 1977 that still reflects into 2018 society. The radio news bulletin that acts as a prologue to the play hints that membership of the European Community/Common Market and sex discrimination and equal pay legislation were issues at the time.

Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party opened in Hampstead Theatre before an abridged recording was broadcast as Play for Today on BBC One. The MAC’s production stays true to the Essex accents and lets the themes within the story resonate while resisting the attempt to shift the story to Northern Ireland. (Though the set with its low seating and sideboards standing on spindly wooden legs do remind me of a house I visited as a child.)

Roisin Gallagher is at the core of every scene, never swerving in mannerism or accent as she plies her guests with often unwanted food and drink, abbreviating everyone’s name (other than her husband’s) to a single syllable, finishing every sentence with a question (“Don’t you agree with me Ang?”) and slowly losing her inhibitions as she gives way to the influence of alcohol and frustration. It’s a flawless performance that anchors the discomfort that director Richard Croxford creates on stage.

Laurence (played by Will Irvine) at first seems like a hen-pecked, later ill-suited husband whose patience is eventually stretched beyond breaking point with consequences. Brigid Shine plays a diminutive Angela who is full of chat but is definitely under the thumb of her often monosyllabic husband Tony who replies to most questions with ‘yeah’.

Like cracks on a wall, tensions between partners grow over the evening. But the wildcard on stage that acts as a quite catalyst is Susan, played brilliantly by Imogen Slaughter. Other than being a single mother previously married to an architect, Susan has no backstory. However, the ambiguity which Slaughter injects into the role leaves the audience longing for more information about why she is quite so uncomfortable as Beverly and Angela bombard her with questions about her past and her plans for the future. There’s always a hint that there’s something we’re not being told.

As the alliances and annoyances rotate around the five-some, Abigail’s Party turns into a fascinating character study. Music of the time is frequently referenced and the record player sitting in the metal framed bookcase is put to good use.

Angela’s dancing deserves a special mention as Brigid Shine once again proves that her character will try to do things for which she is totally unskilled. It’s a beautiful moment in a play that ends with Beverley taking a bow still with a glass in her hand.

Abigail’s Party is definitely the most entertaining play I’ve seen on a Belfast stage so far this month. It pulls off laughs without reducing the complexity of the on-stage relationships which are great fun to pick apart at the interval and the end. A great production of a classic play. Abigail’s Party continues at the MAC until Saturday 5 May. Catch it before Beverly drinks the bar dry …

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon


John Medd said...

Would've been interesting to see it set in 70s Belfast: could it have worked, do you think?

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

The script's so good and there is so little geography in it, I'm not sure it would have been worth adapting it. In fact, the one reference to Belfast that was crowbarred into the script was quite distracting.

Three Sisters tried it and it was bizarre. I didn't work for me in After Miss Julie. Educating Rita is really the only localised play that I can remember feeling that it added something.

John Medd said...

That said, Raymond Murray, my writer cousin, would have had a field day swapping Surbiton for Lurgan!

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...