Theatre review - Abigail’s Party, The Opera House Manchester

Vicky Binns, Daniel Casey, Rose Keegan, Calum Callaghan, Jodie Prenger in Abigail's Party, 2019

Vicky Binns, Daniel Casey, Rose Keegan, Calum Callaghan, Jodie Prenger in Abigail's Party, 2019 - Credit: Archant

Abigail’s Party in 2019: a great cast, pulling out all the stops to deliver a modern classic, says Kate Houghton

Vicky Binns as Angela, Abigails Party

Vicky Binns as Angela, Abigails Party - Credit: Archant

It’s a huge task, to stage a play with such a history: first produced by Mike Leigh in 1977, it was originally directed, but unscripted, with the actors improvising much of each performance. When it was taken to television in November 1977, with an outstanding, now iconic, performance by Alison Steadman in the lead role of Beverly, the script – and therefore the storyline, place and time – were fixed in amber, a state-of-the-nation tale of the late ‘70s, reflecting Leigh’s admitted disdain for and fear of ‘the suburban existence.’

Taking a play like this and giving it relevance in 2019 is tricky. It’s no surprise perhaps that the audience consisted mainly of those who recall it from 40 years ago, and who bring their own memories and expectations to the play.

Jodie Prenger (Beverly) and Calum Callaghan (Tony) Abigail's Party 2019

Jodie Prenger (Beverly) and Calum Callaghan (Tony) Abigail's Party 2019 - Credit: Archant

Where this current iteration of this play really has its strength is in the cast. Jodie Prenger as Beverly is a quite awful monster of a woman. Queen of her castle, she’s viciously keen to ensure that everybody worships at her feet, from excited-to-be-invited new neighbour Angela to long-term neighbour, Sue. Little barbs are wrapped in honey, their spikes only becoming apparent once the words fade, leaving the recipient just a little unsure and off-balance. Prenger does it all masterfully. From her strutting walk as she traverses her desperately on-trend sitting room to her Essex-girl accent, from her throaty non-word commentary to her overbearing insistence on more drinks, cigarettes and cheese & pineapple on sticks, she’s the most terrifying hostess you’d ever fear to encounter.

Vicky Binns, as Angela, is absolutely marvellous too. Clearly worshipful of Beverly, she takes strength from her to defy her (admittedly horrible) husband Tony. Her dance scene with Beverly’s increasingly stressed husband Laurence is pure genius, her delivery of every line, nuanced or just plain adoring, spot on.

Jodie Prenger (Beverly), Rose Keegan (Sue), Dan Casey (Laurence), Vicky Binns (Angela), Calum Callag

Jodie Prenger (Beverly), Rose Keegan (Sue), Dan Casey (Laurence), Vicky Binns (Angela), Calum Callaghan (Tony) Abigail's Party - Credit: Archant

Tony, played by Calum Callaghan, is a ‘nasty piece of work’, as my mother might say. Sexist, angry and virtually monosyllabic, he oozes furious menace. One thing that puzzled me: his every word, snarled at Angela, should have created a moment of utter awkwardness in the room, but it didn’t. Glossing over #awkward is a social skill we all use, but his behaviour was beyond what’s tolerable today and could surely have been knocked back to more subtle, ‘is he or isn’t he?’, levels.

Laurence (Daniel Caseby) is a bit of a mystery too. Repeated references to his stressful job, his increasing ire with his drunken wife and her outrageous flirting all build to a dramatic finale, but I struggle to feel any sympathy with him. He’s been bullied all evening, but his petulant response hasn’t been dignified enough for us to feel for him and by the end I see more Basil Fawlty than hard-done-by husband.

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Finally, the neighbour who is here because her daughter, Abigail, is having a party and wants her mother out. This very act of submission to a 15 year old immediately gives us a hint to her character, before she even arrives. She then continues to allow Beverly to reduce her to a charity case, force-fed G&T until she vomits. As the play progresses, Sue does find her mojo a little, her ‘no thank you’s’ becoming more forceful, until she finally explodes at the end. She is the very epitome of suburban politeness, faced with a brash, social-climbing neighbour she really doesn’t know how to deal with and plunged into a situation she can’t handle with the skills at her disposal. Sue Keegan plays her with class, although I struggled a little with the the droopy, drippy voice she uses throughout. It would have been good to see this firm up as her response to Beverly firms up in the second act.

A great cast, doing a great job, but…I didn’t love the play. It’s played for laughs, with great force, throughout, until it suddenly hits a peak of uncomfortable that progresses rapidly to an unexpected, tragic, end.

If you love the play already, you’ll love this version. And you will adore Jodie’s Beverly.

Playing till Saturday 13 April: