Review: ABIGAIL'S PARTY, Theatre Royal Winchester

A modern classic is as enjoyable as ever in this new production

By: Mar. 03, 2023
Review: ABIGAIL'S PARTY, Theatre Royal Winchester
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Review: ABIGAIL'S PARTY, Theatre Royal Winchester Mike Leigh's iconic black comedy is so synonymous with the decade in which it was first produced - and with its original cast - that a contemporary production is a very real challenge.

Obliged to stay true to the play's original context, staging Abigail's Party in 2023 could easily lead to a pale imitation of a classic or else an outdated period piece about the 1970s, full of stale references to cheese and pineapple or fibre-optic lamps. Happily, however, London Classic Theatre has proved that the story of Beverly and Laurence's fateful drinks party remains as engaging, interesting and relevant as ever; Michael and Kathryn Cabot's show is beautifully put together, razor-sharp and devastatingly effective.

This week, the Theatre Royal Winchester's stage (the first stop on this UK tour of Abigail's Party) has been turned into a time capsule of 1970s England. From the orange leather suite to the geometric wallpaper and textured glass on the drinks cabinet, Bek Palmer's set design is wonderfully elaborate and cuts no corners to create a naturalistic backdrop. This same spirit is evident in the costumes, also designed by Palmer, which include such thoughtful details as creases ironed into the front of Laurence's trousers, or a knowing nod to Alison Steadman's original costume in the form of Beverly's red dress and gold jewellery.

The period setting is complemented by Matthew Green's subtle lighting design, and the sound effects are well-balanced to preserve the realism of the scene: we never stop hearing Abigail's raucous party next door, but the music in Beverly's living room contributes to those vital moments of tension during the play's final throes.

The cast is all outstanding, and form a tight ensemble within which they both support each other's performances and find their own moments to hold the audience's attention.

Rebecca Birch is hilarious as Beverly, and creates some particularly enjoyable moments with Alice De-Warrenne as the weedy new neighbour Angela, who gets a laugh almost every time she opens her mouth. Tom Richardson brings a welcome sense of strength to the role of Laurence, Beverly's husband, an energy that is matched by the taciturn power of George Readshaw's Tony. Jo Castleton creates a genuinely sympathetic character in the older divorcee Susan, but also proves herself central to the play's comedic value - like all the actors, she is a capable foil to the other characters but also a star in her own right. Crucially for a small-cast play like this one, no one actor dominates the performance, but each excels in their role to bring the story to its dreadful end.

Michael Cabot has directed this incredibly strong ensemble through a very tightly-choreographed sequence of quick humour, tension and (of course) outright tragedy that doesn't let up until the final bow. The actors bounce off each other with ease and keep the audience laughing throughout, even during the darkest, most ridiculous moments at the end of the play.

Abigail's Party is, first and foremost, a play about class: Laurence and Beverly's obsession with the idea of 'good taste' becomes increasingly evident as they interact with middle-class Susan and their less privileged new neighbours, Angela and Tony. The cast form a recognisable collection of portraits and their characters feel so familiar that the play's distinctly 1970s concerns still feel relevant today.

Long-time fans of Abigail's Party will be delighted by this clever and faithful production, while the uninitiated can enjoy an adaption that shows Leigh's text at the height of its powers. London Classic Theatre has found the sweet spot between staying true to the concerns of the play and breathing new life into it - the result is a thoroughly enjoyable and truly affecting night out.

Abigail's Party is at Theatre Royal Winchester until 4 march, then on tour until 15 July

Photo Credit: Sheila Burnett


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