Review – Abigail’s Party, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th March 2019

Abigail's PartyAhhh, the glory days of 1977. Everything about Abigail’s Party exudes nostalgia. As soon as I saw the set, I remembered when the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought a top-of-the-range fibre optic lamp for the living room. How I loved that thing! I could sit in the dark and watch it change colours for hours, just like Beverly does. Mind you, I don’t miss the endless times when little bits of glass snapped off and stuck to the carpet until, inevitably, they got stuck in my feet. Serves me right for not wearing any slippers. Nostalgia always hurts somehow.

Beverly and LaurenceNostalgia isn’t just the set, either. There’s an interview in the programme with director Sarah Esdaile, where she talks about the link between the character of Beverly and Alison Steadman, who first played her. Ms Steadman was part of the cast who, with the guidance and leadership of Mike Leigh, devised the play back in 1977; indeed, at the time, she and Leigh were married. This is what Ms Esdaile took from her discussions with Mike Leigh, prior to directing the play: “there is no point in wilfully trying to move Beverly away from [Alison’s] voice because her voice is all over it […] Alison is inextricably linked with Beverly’s voice because she has been such a fundamental part of creating that character.”

BeverlyAnd, in performance, that is both a strength and a weakness of this production. In Jodie Prenger’s highly entertaining portrayal of Beverly, she’s emphatically not, I believe, giving us a simple impersonation of Alison Steadman, because that just wouldn’t work. I remember seeing an immensely tedious production of Victoria Wood’s Talent at the Menier ten years ago where the lead actor just pretended to be the late Ms Wood throughout – merely to confirm what we already suspected, that only Ms Wood could do Ms Wood.

The castHowever, Ms Prenger’s voice, channelling Ms Steadman’s, does give you a feeling of nostalgia, and you can’t help but wonder whether you’d have been better off in the comfort of your own home, watching the original BBC Play for Today on DVD? That’s the elephant in the room; can you improve on (or at least do an interesting cover version of) the original, particularly if you’ve seen said original loads of times? Seven years ago we saw Jill Halfpenny in a production at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Her performance was nothing like Alison Steadman’s; she completely made it her own. And it was an irresistible eye-opener: sexy, funny, tragic, brilliant. Far be it from me to tell Mike Leigh how to stage a production of Abigail’s Party, but actually you can leave Ms Steadman at the front door and go your own way.

Beverly and TonyYou also get the feeling that Beverly’s strangulated vowel sounds as expressed by Ms Prenger aren’t entirely natural; and that, vocally, it’s a bit forced, maybe a little bit pretentious. Which is a shame, because the one thing Beverly is not, is pretentious. She lives for pleasure; for booze, for smoking, for Demis Roussos, for beauty products. She dreams of reclining on the beach at Palma Nova; for her, good taste is whatever you enjoy, and she never tries to be what she isn’t. She leaves the pretentiousness to her husband Laurence, whose desperate attempts to force Van Gogh and Shakespeare on their bemused guests eventually lead to his own personal tragedy.

Beverly Angela and LaurenceWhat Ms Prenger does achieve, brilliantly, is Beverly’s physical presence; her self-indulgent loucheness, gin-and-tonic in one hand, cheesy pineapple sticks in the other, puffing at the cigarette that protrudes sensuously from those heavily made-up lips. And, as the night carries on, she subtly re-balances her stance and walk, as she tries to hide how progressively more drunk she has become, still hoping to maintain that ever-diminishing façade of attractiveness.

LaurenceShe also conveys Beverly’s inner sadness and vulnerability extremely well, forcing others to conform to what she wants because she can’t bear the thought that someone else knows better than she does; spitting out her vengeance against the hapless Laurence, who clearly can no longer bear the sight of her and she hasn’t a clue why.

BeverlyDesigner Janet Bird’s 1970s comfortable suburban living room is filled with all the must-have items of the era. Not only the sensational optic lamp, but also a hi-fi to die for, the perfect pot plants, and a plentifully stocked drinks cabinet concealed within the teak room-divider; everything is spot-on. It is a shame that the room-divider masks a brief, but important scene between Beverly and Laurence, where she tries to make up to him and he pushes her away. I can’t imagine anyone in the audience saw it properly at all, and that feels like a basic staging error. The dinky set sits in the middle of the ginormous Derngate stage and just about holds its own there, although it would have been hugely better in the intimate confines of the Royal Theatre instead. By my reckoning, only by sitting in the absolute centre of the rows do you have a chance to see everything on stage. We were in the centre block of Row F, but on the right aisle, and had no idea there was a bathroom off stage on our side of the auditorium. Similarly, those on the left side of the centre couldn’t see the kitchen. It doesn’t hugely matter for the action in this play, but purists might be disappointed.

AngelaApart from Beverly, the rest of the cast bring their own approaches to their characters, stamping a sometimes unexpected individual authority on them. For example, Vicky Binns’ Angela struck me as being more socially adept and good company than in previous incarnations; she’s clearly very fond of Beverly (or at least, in enormous awe of her) and doesn’t really tell her off at the end when she’s getting in the way of her paramedic act. Calum Callaghan’s Tony is extremely non-communicative and sullen, and only once does he give us a facial expression to suggest he might be willing to thrust along with Beverly’s intimate dancing. The bitterness between Tony and Ange is palpable and excruciating; and their final scene, which is pure physical comedy, works a treat. Daniel Casey (totally unrecognisable as Sgt Troy from Midsomer Murders) is perhaps a little over-frantic in his interaction with the guests and hugely patronising when it comes to the subjects of art and literature; but then again he does have to share his house with a philistine.

SueBut it is Rose Keegan’s characterisation of Sue that comes as the big revelation in this production. Normally seen as a dowdy wallflower totally obsessed with what her daughter might be doing at her party, this Sue comes from another planet. Completely aloof and with her mind on much more than just her daughter, you can almost see her words fragment into vacuousness as they leave her lips. She reminded me of a female version of Neil the Hippy in TV’s The Young Ones. Whether it’s a class thing, and she can’t bear to be surrounded by these awful people, or whether she’s on some kind of drug-induced cloud, I’ve no idea. But she’s totally out of it. And – strangely enough – it works incredibly well. I laughed at her performance more than I laughed at anything else in the play.

DancingAnd that answers the question I asked earlier. Despite an assumption that you might know the play intimately, and despite the lingering Steadmanism of Beverly, there’s always something fresh to be discovered in a new version. Yes, a lot of its darker side gets lost in the quest for comedy. Still, for all its occasional faults, I really enjoyed this production. It’s already been touring for a few weeks, and after its visit to Northampton, it goes on to Blackpool, Aylesbury, Liverpool, Dartford, Manchester and Edinburgh in time for Easter. Time for a top-up?

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Abigail’s Party – Comedy Cabaret, 20th August 2017

Abigail's Party 17Back to the usual Fringe fare with some late-night comedy cabaret courtesy of Abigail and Dave with Abigail’s Party – Comedy Cabaret, at Underbelly Med Quad (Daisy) at 21:50 on Sunday 20th. This is what it says on the website: “Comedy Cabaret hosted by ‘supremely talented comic’ (Time Out) Abigail Burdess and her glamorous assistant Dave! Abigail wrote for the BAFTA-winning That Mitchell and Webb Look and Tracey Ullman’s Show! Dave can’t read! Abigail and Dave invite you to a fabulous comedy shindig of songs, characters and competitions. Jokes! Games! Exclamation marks! Let your inner party animal off the leash! With special guest stars – off the telly – every night! ‘Crazy fun’ (Sara Pascoe). ‘A shitload of fun’ (Robert Webb). ‘The best party I’ve been to in years’ (Lucy Porter).”

Dave TozerAbigail’s Party has been a regular event every month at the North London Tavern, Kilburn, and we went to see it in April. It is of course nothing to do with Mike Leigh’s famous play, but one of those uniquely Fringey comic shindigs where anything can happen. Dave (Abigail’s glamorous assistant) went to my school and owes me lunch. Check back around 11.15pm to see who were the guests and how much fun we had. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

That was enormous fun. Abigail and Dave know how to throw a great party and they’ve got loads of funny material up their collective sleeves. Abigail’s Malania Trump is a work of comedy genius. Guest artiste was the hilarious Sindhu Vee, who had brilliant “Indian family routines” material. An excellent pot pourri of fringey fun. Highly recommended!

Review – Abigail’s Party May Day Eve, Upstairs at the North London Tavern, Kilburn, 30th April 2017

Abigail BurdessThis was our third comedy night out in four days, so don’t try and tell me we’re not funny. A different venue and venture for us this time; Abigail Burdess and Dave Tozer co-hosting an evening of comedy with three acts nestling around one decent interval and one emergency pause. The venue and the event as a whole has a real fringey feel to it that I find instantly appealing. As far as I can make out, the roles within the structure of the show are: 1) Abigail is the host and boss, welcoming us with some jokes and the ground rules, putting us at ease and inviting us to poke fun at 2) Dave, who is the butt of all jokes – and sound engineer. During the intervals we could either dance around Dave’s pole, or write on his forehead. I couldn’t possibly do either; after all, we went to the same school. Also I was sitting behind his mum, and I don’t think she would have been impressed.

Dave TozerAs it was May Day Eve, Abigail and Dave were in full Morris Dancing rig up, complete with fertility rite hankies, although Dave was in ballet tights which I have to say I can’t quite recall from the days I used to follow the Oxford Morris Men… but that’s another story. Abigail and Dave did have some terrific material which they shared during the course of the evening, including what constitutes acceptable heckling, what is the old name for crowdfunding, and how did you meet people for casual sex before the days of the Internet. Having been around in those days I can authoritatively confirm for anyone who is in doubt, that it simply never happened. At all; by anyone.

Ben CloverOur first act was Ben Clover, with whom you can instantly sympathise, as he used to get some horrible nicknames at school; thus he decided to re-enact his coping strategies with the aid of members of the audience. I felt his pain having suffered similar embarrassment myself as a kid. Mr Clover is a naturally very funny man with a sunny disposition that comes from having met his partner through Guardian Soulmates. We loved his calculation that the more tolerant you are of minorities in society, the disadvantaged or those seeking refuge, the less likely you are to be tolerant of lactose, gluten, dairy and so on. It’s 100% a proven fact. He carried us along with his terrific humorous observations and the time just flew by. An easy and delightful way to spend half an hour or more.

Omar and LeeNext up came Omar and Lee, a likeable pair of likely lads who ooze confidence and charisma and use it to their best advantage. Their opening section – where Lee is training Omar in the ways of how to be sexy – was occasionally hit and miss for me; some great ideas but something about it just didn’t quite connect. Obviously I am already sufficiently sexy not to have to take note, or I am so far off the mark that I would have to start with remedial classes. Others were guffawing madly all around, so I accept it was me who was off-kilter. However, once they got into their night-out mime routine I thought they were completely hysterical; beautifully inventive, skilfully choreographed and pinpoint accurately executed. I could watch that again and again. The act then moved on to Omar being visited by The Sacred Feminine but then taking it slightly more to heart than intended – which was really funny – and ended up with some pre-election advice with which I can only fully concur. We’ve not seen these two guys before but I was really impressed and look forward to seeing what else they can do.

Pippa EvansOur final act and – as advertised, as seen on the telly – was Pippa Evans, a member of the Showstoppers team (whom we haven’t seen) but we had seen Pippa six years ago at a Screaming Blue Murder in her alter ego of Loretta Maine, when she absolutely aced it – and in fact she was runner-up for the Screaming Blue Murder Chrisparkle Award that year; so high praise indeed. Pippa is just a natural performer – she’s so comfortable at drifting into comedy songs that, when you look at her, you really do believe that life genuinely could be like a musical. She’s gifted with the accents too, so she can create some great moments of humour by descending into Australian or Geordie at the drop of a pint of Fosters. I loved her resting face charity material and also the two roles (just the two) with which she’s successful at auditions. A really fantastic routine and we were all left wanting more.

Abigail'sPartyAnd more will come on the last Sunday of the month. Don’t think we’ll be able to make it, but if you’re in the area this is a bargain of an enjoyable Sunday night’s comedy. Great stuff!

P. S. I would like to add a personal note of thanks to whoever put together the background music at the start and during the intervals: how wonderful to hear Spike Milligan’s Q theme again.

Review – Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark, London, 7th April 2012

Abigail's PartyIt’s a really big risk to take such a well known play that is so associated with one particular star performance in one particular star production and to revive it with a brand new cast. The big question is, will you be constantly comparing it with Alison Steadman, Janine Duvitski and the rest, or does the new cast stand on its own two feet and make its own mark? Without question the answer is the latter. This is a superb revival of this wonderful Mike Leigh play from the 1970s, and the cast absolutely make it their own.

The set is brilliant. Even before the play starts, there are so many wonderful little details to take in. The plastic lampshades from Woolworths; the Radio Times; the trimphone (very trendy!); the fibre optic lamp (colours a bit on the subtle side perhaps); the Spanish lady doll and traditional (on the Costa Brava at least) wine pourer; I could go on. Fantastic work by the props department – when did you last see a tub of Blue Band margarine? Superb attention to detail.

Andy NymanDespite the progress of the years, the play remains very relevant today. If Laurence despaired at Beverley’s low-brow tastes in art and music, heaven knows what he would have made of today’s X-Factor generation. Laurence remains a lone voice fighting, in his fatally inept way, for recognition of artistic endeavour in a sea of dumbing-down. Andy Nyman’s Laurence is a very angry man. The pressures of work and living with Beverley have really taken their toll on him and he finds it toe-curlingly difficult to keep his feelings in, even when he has company round for drinks. It’s a superb performance. He brings out the full crassness of Laurence’s desperate closed-questioning line of conversation: “Sue, do you like art?”, “Do you like Paris?”; “Have you read any Dickens?” One of the things that makes the play so brilliant is the fact that the character with whom one ought to have the most sympathy is more or less just as grotesque as the others.

Joe AbsolomOne part of the story that is really emphasised in this production is the mystery of what happens when Laurence and Tony go over to Sue’s house to check on the party. My memory of the original production is that in the second act Laurence and Tony exchange quizzical looks at each other as to what each of them did while they were there. In this production this has escalated to outright animosity between the two, especially from Laurence. It really spikes up the story no end and adds a level of subtlety and mystery. Joe Absolom makes a great Tony. This must be a very hard role to play as so many of Tony’s lines consist of sullen, largely monosyllabic replies – you don’t feel that the script gives you a lot of clues as to his character – but Mr Absolom was totally believable in this part – despite very nearly corpsing at the huge laugh that came when Angela said to Beverley, “well we’re alike aren’t we”.

Natalie CaseyWhich brings us to Natalie Casey’s brilliant reinvention of the role of Angela. Janine Duvitski’s interpretation concentrated on her dowdy and downtrodden nature, but Ms Casey is a much more upbeat Angela – even though she still delivers the text in that marvellous deadpan tone. I feel this Angela really knows her own mind and she’s nobody’s fool – when Beverley and Tony are dancing smooch to smooch, Ms Casey, rather than just accepting it, expresses her resentment with a change of tone and some simple but wonderful comic business. But her whole performance is a comic delight, a truly delicate balance of the grotesque and the ridiculous, infused through with a kind compassion.

Susannah HarkerCompassion, but without subtlety or tact, as her wonderfully intrusive questioning about Susan’s ex-husband shows. Another wonderful performance, Susannah Harker’s Susan is not as pompous or remote as previous interpretations; she is very uncomfortable but beautifully polite, with a splendidly breathy way of saying thank you. Her distaste for some of the activity around her is perfectly realised by being delightfully underplayed, and her comic timing is superb.

Jill HalfpennyAnd of course there’s Beverley, one of the best comic roles written for a woman in the 20th century. I always thought Alison Steadman was the absolute incarnation of Beverley and that no one else would be able to match it. Wrong. Jill Halfpenny is brilliant. Very wisely, she is not doing an Alison Steadman impersonation, but fills the character really convincingly in her own way.

Where I always thought Alison Steadman’s Beverley was sexy primarily in her own mind, Jill Halfpenny’s Beverley is full-on-sexy. There’s a lengthy scene where she is sitting provocatively in an armchair, fondling her cigarette as though it were a sex toy, whilst directly opposite her Tony is silently spellbound, subtly adjusting his position for comfort, whilst the others carry on talking oblivious to the growing attraction. In a different scene, when she is quizzing Angela about what Tony is like, she gets really turned on by the possibility he might be violent. Uncomfortable but very believable, Jill Halfpenny’s central performance is just great; totally credible, never over the top in the grotesque department, not too obviously “Essex” in her approach, and above all, very very funny.

The tragedy that ends the play comes to bring everything back down to earth and to reverse the roles – with the dominant Beverley railing pathetically, the struggling Laurence put to rest and the underdog Angela taking control. Even this final scene was given a hilarious comic twist played beautifully by Ms Casey and Mr Absolom.

An absolutely first rate production, one of the best things the Menier has produced for a long time, and it would be a crime if it didn’t transfer.