On its 40th anniversary tour, Mike Leigh’s iconic comedy of dreadful aspirational suburbia still resounds with us.
WE love dysfunctional marriages. We love and laugh at the pretence of Margot in The Good Life or Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances. And even when in this play a main character actually dies onstage the audience howls with laughter at the situation.
So taking joy in other’s misfortunes is not just Germanic, it’s British to the core. Mike Leigh claims he is not sneering at these slightly pre-Thatcher people who are trying to better themselves, but at the same time jealous of other socially upward couples. I think the jury is out on that.
That aside, Jodie Prenger, the TV talent show star who 10 years ago won the right to play Nancy in the West End revival of Oliver is grotesquely brilliant as party hostess Beverley. Dressed somewhat like her musical hero Demis Roussos in flowing floral gown, she is a kind of Lady Macbeth of suburban London .
She belittles, manipulates and rules over her guests and her estate agent husband. She shouts, she snarls and she brow beats everyone, even forcing three recent recovering ex-smokers to light up and pouring so much gin down her unsuspecting shrinking violet neighbour that she becomes a head down the toilet case.
Even the vomiting becomes the source of humour in this relentless bombardment of our senses. What makes Jodie’s beast so loveable is her good-natured bull in a china shop way of tackling her rather boring existence head-on.
And she is ably supported by a quartet of peerless performers. Daniel Casey as Laurence her hubby who has to fight for his life in the Second Act is well-meaning, cultured and totally mismatched with his petty bourgeois wife.
Vicky Binns as the rather gullible nurse Angela is no match for her grumpy and probably violent husband Tony, played by Calum Callaghan. His aspirational days – as a professional footballer – are over and so Ange can belittle him as Beverley does. Trouble is Beverley seriously fancies Tony and he seems keen too which just adds to the volatile mix of the evening.
Rose Keegan, as the rather wimpish divorcee Sue seems to be led astray and have little to offer to the party yet she is the only character who doesn’t seem to take advantage of others.
Director Sarah Esdaile says she reverted to Mike Leigh’s rehearsal technique of improvisation to get inside the characters, and it works although of course the script has been set in stone since 1977.
A wonderful insight into a life some of us remember – complete with fibre optic lamp, white shag pile carpet and leather pouffe.
A magical evening.
Abigail’s Party is at the Theatre Royal Brighton till Saturday, January 19 and then on tour.
Review by Brian Butler
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