Andrew loves olives. Phil can’t stand them.
So 50% of the Whingers like olives then.
Which of course will mean squiddly dit if you’ve never seen Abigail’s Party. Extraordinarily one of the Whingers’ party at this preview at the Menier Chocolate Factory had never seen it before. Well, we say party, there were five of us and not strictly speaking there together, but by chance. But five people and a party? Friends of Abigail will understand where we’re going with this…
Tricky one. The 1977 TV recording of Mike Leigh‘s comedy of social manners is so well-remembered by many of us that anyone putting on a new production must also feel they’re putting on a straight-jacket and taking a leap into the known. In Whinger circles it is probably the most frequently quoted modern play (well, any play then; we are not know for intentionally lapsing into swathes of Shakespeare). It is so ingrained in the Whingers’ psyches that Andrew still insists on offering Phil olives just so he can lapse into Bevspeak.
Tamper with it and you’ll incur the wrath of its fans, remain too faithful and it might pale by comparison.
But the moment you enter the auditorium you can exhale and relax. It hasn’t been updated to a cyber-world and there is nothing site-specific on the way in. Mike Britton’s excellent set is perfectly site-specific, but only the sense that it immediately locates us in the 1970’s.
Beverly and Laurence’s suburban living room is a study in brown and all in the worst possible taste: the brown leather furniture, the wallpaper so ghastly it’s actually rather wonderful and then there’s the fibre-optic lamp. Phil was instantly transported back to the decade when his next door neighbours had just such a lamp proudly positioned on top of their TV set. They even had a special comb for grooming the optics. Phil often popped round for a spot of grooming.
Beverly and Laurence have invited their neighbours round for a drinks party: the meek, inhibited Angela, her monosyllabic ex-professional footballer husband Tony and the divorced Susan whose unseen 15 year-old daughter Abigail is having a party at home. The dialogue is hilariously awkward and stilted as the guests struggle to find things to talk about. Bev is anxious that everyone (but especially herself) enjoy themselves and struggles to keep things in the air by over-serving them.
The biggest problem for any new production of Abigail’s Party must be casting the aspirational hostess as the role was played so famously by Alison Steadman; it has to be brave or foolhardy actress who takes her on. If you know Steadman’s Beverly it will always be the character that takes the longest to adjust to but Jill Halfpenny tries on those shoes, finds them a decent fit yet is still able to leap that massive hurdle in her high heels successfully; she’s funny, agreeably ghastly and shimmering with retro-sexuality.
Comparison’s may be odious but we cannot help ourselves. The three female performers probably take their roles further from the originals than the men. None more so than Natalie Casey who whilst remaining true to the character creates a completely different version from Janine Duvitski’s Angela and rather wonderfully too.
But director Lindsay Posner has cast the whole show deftly and marshalled the excruciating cringe-worthy set up to provide plenty of amusement throughout. It’s good to hear (Abi) gales of laughter echoing around the Menier again. Susannah Harker plays the quiet Sue completely convincingly as if she’d understandably much rather be somewhere else, Andy Nyman is suitably frantic, neurotic and hen-pecked which balances nicely against Joe Absolom‘s Tony’s taciturn unease. But he doesn’t seem overly uncomfortable when Bev sets her sights on his thighs.
The party degenerates as drink kicks in, the competitiveness, prejudices and embarrassments get worse with Bev becoming even more selfish, Laurence more stressed, people getting ill and Sue seeming like a prisoner in her hosts’ home. If we say it’s car crash theatre we mean it as a compliment.
Phil’s only real quibble is that the impact of that crash might be even heightened if it ran straight through (which would be about 1hour 35 minutes) but apparently Mr Leigh insists it must be played with an interval.
Someone behind the Whingers couldn’t stop themselves reciting a couple of lines along with the performers. And if there is occasionally a feeling of playing a greatest hits album and waiting for one’s favourite tracks (the Demis Roussos, the olives, the lipstick application tips, the “Love to Love Baby” moments) it still becomes more than a sum of its parts. Happily AP is in such safe hands here it enforces the play’s status as a classic able to travel beyond that iconic original production.
The Menier is on top form again with a production showing potential to go beyond its own walls (it is presented with the Theatre Royal Bath and will run there in April). If Kinder Egg is a rating of 1 for the Chocolate Factory (Hershey’s a 2 etc) then this deserves Hotel Chocolat status.
How we laughed. A lot.