As she slinks her way sexily around the room to the sound of Donna Summer, there’s a distinct sense that Beverley (Kellie Shirley) literally owns the stage: this is her space, her stuff; material goods manifest her success. Tonight she will be the centre of attention at a little soiree for the neighbours, and she is desperate for that attention. But things don’t go quite as planned, and an awkward, uncomfortable evening degenerates into disaster.
Abigail’s Party is the ‘cheese and pineapple’ play that everyone knows from the TV production starring Alison Steadman. It comments on the suburban middle class of the 1970s using superb observational humour to evoke a cringingly astute depiction of desperate social aspiration, with its materialism and snobbery. At its centre, Shirley plays an impressive Bev, doggedly manipulating the evening to focus on herself. She is sexy, sneaky and overbearing, whilst always doing ‘the right thing’: out of her depth in this middle class world but determined to own it, even as it collapses around her. Shirley’s hysteria at the close is so illusory it almost makes you feel sorry for Bev, as she loses a grip not only on her power but almost her humanity.
Clive Brill’s production is made excellent by the compelling ensemble work, which repeatedly pushes Bev back in her place, whilst each character splendidly brings out the worst in the others. Ryan Early is magnificent as husband Laurence. He offers wonderful, eye-popping moments in total silence that speak so loudly about his stress it’s deafening. The competitive energy between him and Matt Di Angelo as the taciturn Tony in his ‘attractive’ safari jacket is totally electric, with Bev painfully playing them off against each other and portraying herself in the role of imagined WAG. Barbara D’Alterio as neighbour Sue is wonderfully meek. Throughout, she provides laugh out loud comedy as Bev bullies her into ‘enjoying herself’, so it hits with a startling bang when she finally loses her temper. Emma Noakes is outstanding as Ange, the belittled, wifely doormat played with utter conviction and consistency, never for laughs alone, and always portrayed as true to herself. This then ably supports the dramatic twist when Ange leaps into action as an experienced, effective nurse, and her actual value is made clear.
Beth Colley’s fabulicious 1970s set is stunningly authentic, tiny details capturing the era, and it is a joy to behold. From the onyx ashtray to the pretentious drinks cabinet, to the fibre optic lamp, the most desired goods of the time are displayed against a backdrop of groovy wallpaper; the height of good taste back then, yet questionable now.
Nearly 50 years after its first performance this tragi-comedy marks the distance – or lack thereof – between 1970s social behaviours and those of today. Bev’s casual references to rape sit uncomfortably now, and our expectations are notably different from that era, when a fridge freezer was a luxury. Its revival offers subtle insight on what is different across the years, but also discloses how little has changed. Ange’s role rings bells with the current NHS pandemic situation, where the diligent working class are persistently undervalued until there is a crisis. Today, Bev’s idea of perfection might be looking like a Love Island contestant, and that desperation to be adored is something clearly perpetuated by the media. We’re still urged to conform to artificial social constructs when all too often this involves taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Bev’s downfall clearly exemplifies the dangers of such behaviours.
This is a really fun evening out with lots of laughs, and enjoyably uncomfortable characterisation from a sharp, talented cast. Yes the pineapple chunks are fun, but for such a specifically period play Abigail’s Party has surprising resonance for today. Think about that while you’re having your smashed avo on sourdough.
Written by: Mike Leigh
Directed by: Vivienne Garnett
Produced by: Brill Productions
Abigail’s Party runs at Park Theatre until 4 December. Further information and bookings via the below link.