Cringing but Crying with Laughter
Not a single word has been spoken when the first laughs come.
It’s testament to the fact that, in this production of Abigail’s Party it is not just Mike Leigh’s brilliantly comedic script, but also the sheer physical expression that the actors convey which leaves the audience both uncomfortable and rolling in the aisles.
It is a rare gift, to be able to make people laugh and squirm at the same time, but this new production of Abigail’s Party has managed to achieve exactly that.
The architecture of the Curve Theatre in Leicester lends itself well to the theatre in the round, but this is the first time such a production has been staged here and no doubt it won’t be the last. The audience is practically pulled into the party as they surround the stage.
Sitting around the low stage, the living room and all its accoutrements are close enough to touch and it feels like you are sitting right inside Beverly and Laurence’s kitsch living room.
It’s all here; the loud, orange carpet, shag-pile cushions, fibre optic spray lamp, record player and silver (plate) candelabra transport you back to 1977, not to mention the drinks cabinet complete with pineapple shaped ice bucket and soda syphon.
The action is at times fast paced, at others filled with the kind of awkward silences and wooden conversation you would find at an unsuccessful party…. it is the kind of party we have all been to and the kind we all wish we hadn’t.
But this isn’t Abigail’s party. Abigail is the teenage daughter of divorcee Sue, who Beverly has invited round so her daughter can party without mum in the way.
Beverly has also invited new neighbours Tony and Angela, although we get the distinct impression that her husband Laurence isn’t exactly in the mood for a party.
Laurence, played by Patrick Moy, is an angina attack waiting to happen. He is constantly agitated and preoccupied with his work as an estate agent for Wibley Webb. The way he pronounces the name of his employer is itself a scream.
Moy’s characterisation is completely credible as the ambitious but nervy and overly tense middle class man who is concerned that his neighbourhood is becoming more downmarket and is continually frustrated by his empty-headed wife.
Emily Head’s portrayal of Angela is suitably sweet and ditzy and her quirky dancing is both wonderfully awkward and delightfully hilarious.
Her tightly monosyllabic ex-footballer husband, Tony, played by Cary Crankson, visually loosens up as his blood-alcohol levels rise throughout the play, eliciting more laughs from the audience as he responds to the advances of Beverly like a giant, sleepy koala hugging a tree.
The tension in Jackie Morrison’s Sue is palpable, not just because of her worries about her daughter’s wild party antics up the street, but as Beverly and Angela hilariously make insensitive references to her divorce we see her polite discomfort rise towards breaking point.
The irony of nurse Angela’s attempt to make her comfortable by stuffing cushions behind her, to the extent she is actually tipping forward, is emblematic of the way the play is so uncomfortable, and so gloriously comical.
Of course, the pivotal character in the whole debacle is Beverly. In a role made famous by Alison Steadman, Natalie Thomas is very well-suited.
There are comforting references back to Steadman’s portrayal, but Thomas adds to these and, in so doing, makes it her own.
From her side-splitting sexual dancing display to her self-absorbed insensitivity, Thomas’s Beverly is most definitely stunning. You can’t help but love her and hate her all at the same time.
The climax of the play features a picture that Beverly considers a piece of erotic art, but that Laurence despises as pornographic rubbish, but when Beverly brings in the picture it is a shame that where we were sitting we were unable to see what all the fuss was about.
This kind of thing is always a drawback with theatre in the round, but then does it really matter? This play is all about the characters.
Despite being set in the 1970s, Abigail’s Party is timeless. All the seventies icons and references are mere framing. The real brilliance of this play is the characterisation.
Everyone in the audience has undoubtedly met people just like Mike Leigh’s characters. They are not simple cariacatures, they are just like real people, and coupled with the normality of the setting and the situation, this is what makes it all the more uncomfortable.
It’s horrible. It’s excruciating to watch. But, as Beverly would say, it’s ‘fantastic!’
I saw Abigail’s Party at Curve Leicester on Friday 17th October 2014. The play is running until Saturday 8th November 2014
More information can be found by visiting www.curveonline.co.uk