Keep Calm and Party On [by James Wenley]
The promotional blurb has boldly led with the Channel 4 Quote that Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh is the “most painful hundred minutes of British comedy”. You can understand why. The guests of the party are hardly the type of people you’d otherwise willingly want to spend that amount of time with. While 15-year-old Abigail’s party blares next door, the middle-class guests at Beverly’s party (her husband Laurence, new-to-the-area couple Ange and Tony, and Abigail’s mother Susan) hold a distinctive air of antagonism and mutual dislike as they chip away at one another, flirt with the wrong partner, and all the while try to maintain that peculiarly British front – keep calm and carry on.
When interval hit I was struck with the thought: how much more of this could I take? It’s a squirmingly hilarious satire of 1970s suburban Britain, but it a decidedly masochistic audience experience – a social train-wreck that you cannot take your eyes off. The Channel 4 reviewer was referencing the 1979 BBC Play for Today film version of the story, here Mike Leigh’s 1977 play (famous for being developed out of improvisations with the cast), under the direction of Sam Sneddon, extracting as much awkwardness as he can, the play is a comically grueling 2 hours+.
Andi Crown’s party host Beverly is a ghastly creation, disguising her putdowns of her husband and friends with social niceties. She casts a slightly tragic figure, over-made in a chiffon-like salmon dress that perfectly screams 1970s fashion horror. Beverly is given much of the attention and dialogue heavy-lifting of the play, which Crown delivers effortlessly, with brilliant pronouncements on marriage, kids, and olives, among others. You certainly feel for her highly stressed husband, and Simon Vincent gives us a memorable Laurence by way of a higher-pitched John Cleese, waiting to explode.
They are joined by eager-to-please Angela (Sophie Roberts) and mono-syllabic Tony Cooper (Nic Sampson), only three years married, but it’s clear to us that the rot has already set in. Roberts is highly entertaining, with cleverly subtle reactions and a grating girlish laugh that escapes when the character is nervous (often). Sampson looks positively murderous for most of the play, wanting to be anywhere but at this party, but Sampson doesn’t seem to have completely yet internalised his character’s silent dialogue. Jacque Drew’s Susan is someone who has given up on life long ago, a look of constant worry on her face as she frets about what is happening back at her house.
Snedden’s directorial debut shows a very fine eye for detail – such as the way Angela’s gaze always darts to her husband – and understands that in this world it is what is not said that is most important. They find a lot of comedy in the reactions, and I’d always look closely at each person to see what their body language was revealing at any given moment. In this vein, an gawky dance scene brilliantly captures the respective dynamics.
The production has a lot of fun with the 1970s décor and style, and the program reveals that “many items in our awesome set are available for purchase”. The Basement certainly seems to have been transported back in time, with gharish wallpaper, carpet, and 70s light fittings (Update: Credit to Lighting Designer Pete Davison, and assistant and operator Amber Molloy, with Andi Crown and Elise Sterback on set).
Leigh is clever to juxtapose our imagined image of the youth’s raging party next door full of life and spirit, with the walking dead of Beverly’s house-hold. Laurence is the character most willing to voice what is really going on, but his great speech about how “most people just drift through life” is willingly ignored by the others in the room. Angela later gets a telling throw-way line about marriage: “The Fun wears off”.
What Leigh essentially does is keep the character’s talking (or not, in the case of Tony), thereby giving each character enough rope to hang themselves in the eyes of the audience. The back-story and strained relationship dynamics improvised and work-shopped by the original cast gives a wealth of material to propel the talking-head drama along, with variations along the way of couch positions and who is in the room at a given time.
While foreshadowed early on, the play’s ending is surely one of the great endings of modern British drama. You can imagine the original British audience looking on in sheer terror, the content coming close to home and plunging into their nerve ends. It did prove very popular, so perhaps the effect was something of a deluded schadenfreude for the Brits. You can imagine the conversations playing out: “Do you like this Bill? I’m so glad I’m nothing like Beverly. You know you do remind me an awful lot of Laurence though…”
For us at The Basement, removed in time and geography, any mimesis is muted and easier still to ignore. The sharp character work of the cast however, does make it possible to discern qualities of people you may have come across. Leigh’s play comes across as a bitingly effective satire, with also something of a modern morality tale to it. Be careful who you invite over.
Excruciating, but worth every minute of it.
Abigail’s Party is presented by Vibracorp Productions and plays at The Basement until 21st September. Details see The Basement.
BONUS: “Guests are invited to dress up in 70s knitwear on Thursday 12th September to get a two-for-one ticket entry, and stay late on Thursday 19th for a special bonus feature of a live director’s commentary over top of selected scenes from the play.”