Review: Abigail's Party at Liverpool Playhouse ****
We’ll all have had awkward encounters and been in hellish situations – but I’ll wager none so protractedly, toe-curlingly, cringeworthy as Mike Leigh’s Seventies suburban soiree.
I say Mike Leigh, but Abigail’s Party was really a collaboration between the writer/director and his original cast who improvised situations that he then turned in to brilliant wincing dialogue.
One of those cast members was Liverpool’s Alison Steadman who inhabited the monstrous – but at the same time piteously insecure – skin of aspirational hostess Beverly, wielder of pineapple and cheese on sticks and a phalanx of spirits.
Here in this very enjoyable touring production, drinks duty falls to Jodie Prenger who first appears as a magnificent ship’s figurehead in full sail, all kaftan and cleavage, undulating across the fitted carpet to the strains of Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby.
While Steadman has become synonymous with the role, Prenger succeeds in putting her own radiant stamp on the character. It’s a big, often beguiling performance, although that means that at times we miss a little of Beverly’s underlying vulnerability.
Beverly and stressed, workaholic estate agent husband Laurence (Daniel Casey) are having new neighbours Angela and Tony around for drinks, along with Sue (Rose Keegan – delightfully placid and wafty), a divorcee whose teenage daughter Abigail's titular party can be heard kicking off in the background.
Beverly bulldozes the conversation from topic to topic as she dispenses alcoholic top ups, the excruciating small talk like nails on a blackboard.
Abigail's Party. Top: Jodie Prenger and Calum Callaghan as Beverly and Tony. Photos: Manuel Harlan
Vicky Binns delivers a less flamboyant but equally engaging performance as ‘Ang’, whose nervous, tactless prattle and girlish pink dress make her appear ditzy but who is the one who takes calm control in a crisis.
Meanwhile Calum Callaghan is a faintly menacing, monosyllabic presence as Tony, a sullen, Baccardi-swigging bully.
Those of a certain age will feel right at home in the lounge of Beverly’s brick and timber slice of Essex suburbia, with its chocolate and orange colour scheme that time and taste forgot, its bookcase drinks cabinet and its obligatory cheese plant. All that’s missing is a bit of pampas grass.
Abigail’s Party is, at its core, a tragicomedy, a tale of thwarted ambitions and aspirational dreaming under blue suburban skies.
And it’s an even more awkward watch for modern day audiences, not just because of the cringeworthy conversation and action, but because it shines a light on a time where women still defined themselves by their roles as companions to men – however boorish or boring.
While you could argue a little of that nuance is occasionally lost here amid the big physical comedy and delicious, uncomfortable laughs, the Demis Roussos and the wash of Beefeater and Baccardi, director Sarah Esdaile and her cast still deliver a very entertaining tour de farce.