It was a pleasure to head back to the 1970s and see Mike Leigh’s famous comedy of manners Abigail’s Party at Derby Theatre this week, in a revival directed by Douglas Rintoul.
Clearly, the shadow of the original 1977 production, starring Leigh’s then-wife Alison Steadman, hangs heavily over any revival of the play, but this production is able to stand confidently on its own two feet thanks to the quality of the performances of the five actors, led by Melanie Gutteridge in the famous part of bored, social-climbing Essex housewise Beverly.
For those not familiar with the plot, it features an uncomfortable suburban drinks do, thrown by Beverly and her stressed husband Laurence, to which are invited the neighbours: well-meaning but seemingly empty-headed Ange, her uncomfortable, ex-footballer husband Tony and stiff, desperately polite Sue, who has escaped from a party next door, thrown by her teenage punk daughter Abigail.
The play became famous for its skewering of the naffer side of 70s fashion, music and general attitudes, plus the social aspirations of its mismatched characters, but generally you find yourself laughing with, rather than at, this quintet and, as the evening of seemingly inconsequential chit-chat continues, you find yourself caring about the fate of the quintet.
At the centre of all this is the dissatisfied Beverly, with her cheery facade masking a low-level bullying of the others at the party, and a passive-aggressive relationship with Laurence that later becomes purely aggressive as her flirting with a wary Tony threatens to get out of hand.
It’s hard to pick a standout performance so equal plaudits must go to the talented quintet of Melanie Gutteridge, Liam Bergin (Tony), Amy Downham (Ange), Susie Emmett (Sue) and Christopher Staines (Laurence).
The play fizzes along nicely on the back of its snappy dialogue and as the action takes a darker turn towards the end, the play successfully pulls the rug from under the audience as the chuckling suddenly stops.
All in all a very successful revival of a classic modern play, Abigail’s Party is highly recommended.
The production is on at Derby Theatre until October 20, and make sure you don’t miss its companion piece Abi. Written by Atiha Sen Gupta, Abi is performed by Safiyya Ingar and is set 40 years after the events in Abigail’s Party, focussing on Abi, the granddaughter of Abigail from the original play.
Call the box office for ticket details for both shows on 01332 593939 or go to www.derbytheatre.co.uk
Photos by Mark Sepple