Friday, 7 September 2018

REVIEW: Abigail’s Party at the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch

Mike Leigh’s 1977 play is a British Classic and earned this status through its method of creation with long improvisation sessions with the original cast and from its shocking expose of seventies suburbia manners and its conclusion when aired, after its first stage performances ,on the BBC Play for Today season; A series that often created shockwaves through its audiences. Alison Steadman created the dominant character, Beverly and it firmly established her as a brilliant actress.

It is now, of course, 41 years since the show was first produced and this new revival at the Queen's Hornchurch remains faithful to the original design and is firmly rooted in the late seventies. Set and Costume designer Lee Newby has created Beverly’s open plan home complete with loud patterned wallpaper , G-Plan furniture, leather sofa , white mock fur rug a lava lamp and a coloured fibre optic lamp. The Bar is centre stage. The pre show music also places us back in time with Hot Chocolate’s “You sexy thing” and Motown “Love machine”. For the matinee audience it was a trip back in time! It is also set in “theoretical Romford “just before the dawn of the era Mrs T and joining the European Economic Community as it was then called. Ironically given today’s political mess the locals in Hornchurch and the rest of the South East have benefitted hugely from the economic growth and house price growth that the era post this play’s time has generated. It makes the revival feel anachronistic and dated a piece stuck in the time it was written.

Beverly is played by Melanie Gutteridge and easily creates the monster party host forcing excessive drinks and cigarettes on her guests and trying overly hard to create a party atmosphere to her own liking regardless of her guest reactions and interest. It is a strong central comic performance. Her hen pecked overworked husband Laurence is played by Christopher Staines, perhaps made to look slightly too old with his dodgy seventies moustache. The other couple are the new neighbours Tony, a quiet taciturn man with an extravagant head of hair played by Liam Bergin and his silly overexcited wife Angela, played by Amy Downham. In Act 2 the role reversals are well done as Angela takes control of the chaos bought on by Beverly and Tony’s more sinister side is hinted at. However it is Susan, the divorced neighbour whose fifteen year old punk daughter is holding the party of the title next door that is the normal one and Susie Emmett captures her uncomfortable feelings of being with these two unpleasant couples with her taught posture and small looks.

At times the behaviours are toe curling awful and we don’t fully understand
what happens when the two men and sent to check up on party next door and Tony comes back with stain on his shirt. We do start se that all is not well with his relationship with Angela when she says he has threatened to “sellotape her mouth” and the women discuss that they “all need a bloke, for the money but that they can be just boring”. The manners become more awkward and painful to watch as the party and relationships spiral out of control. As a result the laughter of recognition and amusement becomes less frequent until the plays sudden and dramatic ending.

Classic British Theatre is worth reviving and sustaining but while this is a good production it does not feel relevant or interesting today and it requires the new companion piece “Abi” – (see separate review) to imagine what happened afterwards and how the world has changed since the seventies but it simply reinforced the outdated attitudes and behaviours of the original play.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls Row E | Price of Ticket: £27
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