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Abigail’s Party

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Four Stars

It looks like someone is playing house when you look through the windows of the 1970s suburban des-res that forms the backdrop to what is arguably Mike Leigh’s most lauded play. It is a play as well that has come to define its very British age as well as much of what came after.

Behind the glass frontage of Janet Bird’s set in Sarah Esdaile’s touring revival, Jodie Prenger’s Beverly is queen of her semi-detached castle, an aspirational proto-Thatcherite who has elbowed her way to what she sees as the top with estate agent hubby Laurence in tow. In every dream home a heartache, alas, as the party she throws for newly moved in neighbours Angela and Tony plus next door divorcee Sue proves to disastrous effect.

There is something desperately Chekhovian about Leigh’s play, immortalised in the BBC’s defining TV version, but which forty years on is equally painful in its depiction of thwarted dreams. It would be easy to ham up its period bad taste, but really there’s no need. All the wrong-footed ambition of its era is summed up the moment she puts Sue’s bottle of Beaujolais in the fridge.

As Daniel Casey’s Laurence stresses himself towards a heart attack, you wonder how he and Beverly ever got together. The same applies to Vicky Binns’ ditzy Angela and Calum Callaghan’s mono-syllabic sociopath, Tony. Only Rose Keegan’s Sue seems different here, less put-upon, if made increasingly anxious by the sounds of the future coming through the walls. Behind these, her teenage daughter Abigail plays Ramones records while the place gets wrecked like a crimp-haired ancestor of a Skins party.

Dating from a time where you were considered old before you were thirty, Leigh’s play is a fascinating time-capsule of a historical period when social mobility was still possible, but which could so easily be as disastrous as a bottle of chilled Beaujolais. 

The Herald, February 5th 2019


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