Back to the 70s with Abigail
Abigail’s Party, Warwick Arts Centre, runs until Saturday 18 March
Review by Annette Kinsella - plus guide to hold your own retro party!
The workers are on strike, the economy is crashing and inflation is through the roof. If we weren’t already back to the 70s, Warwick Arts Centre is sealing the deal by staging the Mike Leigh classic Abigail’s Party, where Jose Felicianois is always on the turntable and the Beaujolais never runs dry.
The action starts before a word is spoken, as the audience is treated to a voyeuristic peek through the window of hostess with the mostess, Beverley (Rebecca Birch), preparing her suburban Essex living room for a drinks soiree. The set is designed with razor-sharp precision, lavishly sprinkled with fibre lamps, cocktail glasses and velour cushions. In fact, I was so charmed by the perfect retro recreation I took notes for those who want to stage their own Abigail’s Party in the comfort of their own home, which is included at the end of this review. But I digress. Back to the show itself.
The problem faced by the modern Abigail’s Party cast is the fact the original was so, so good. Alison Steadman, as the original Beverley, made the part her own, winning an ES best actress award for her steal performance. Birch as Beverley puts in a similarly sterling performance, although never deviates far from the Steadman blueprint. I was surprised to hear in the Q and A afterwards that Birch had never seen the original play, but after hearing that Leigh’s original actors improvised most of their lines which were subsequently incorporated into the script, it made sense that Beverley has Steadman in her DNA.
Tom Richardson as her long-suffering husband Laurence was similarly convincing, while Jo Castleton played twinset and pearls upper-class divorcee Sue, mother of the eponymous Abigail, to buttoned-up perfection. Class tensions, crisply captured by Leigh, play out as Laurence insists on forcing his reproduction Van Goghs and aspirational leather-bound Dickens on her as she cringes in her armchair.
But it is Alice De-Warrenne and George Readshaw, as guests Angela and Tony who are most intriguing. Angela, a nurse, is ordinary and mousy, but comes into her own when a medical tragedy forces her to become the calm, capable professional she is at work. Seen through present-day eyes, it almost becomes a tribute to underpaid and overworked NHS staff, who remain in the background but every hour become the unsung heroes of the stories of families across the country. Meanwhile the intimidating behaviour of taciturn, brooding husband Tony looks coercive and maladaptive through a 21st century lens. De-Warrenne and Readshaw portray these characters with sensitivity, with sympathetic and thought-provoking performances that don’t invite too harsh a judgement on their 70s stereotypes.
Although Abigail’s Party is a love letter to the 70s, the characters and even the set feels timeless because, behind the Tupperware, erotica paintings and teak sideboards, lurk the same enduring family dynamics today. Mothers argue with daughters, wives flirt with neighbours. A modern-day Beverley and Tony might swap their Mini Metro for an Audi and the G and Ts for Prosecco – but the middle class curtain-twitching angst is still bang on the money.
Host your own Abigail’s Party: a step by step guide
Music: Chuck out Spotify and dust down the vinyl. Apart from the Demis Roussos classic Forever and Ever so revered by the cinematic Beverley, no Eurovision entry would sound out of place in the 70s front room. Add Donna Summer and Elvis liberally. Just don’t forget some Beethoven and James Galway for Laurence. A classic hits compilation should do it.
Furnishings: Tear down your state-of-the-art brushed chrome spotlights. For Beverley-tasistic lighting you’ll need a garish oversized lampshade or a lava lamp. Preferably both. And don’t forget the ashtrays – the smoking ban is still a good 25 years away, so these will save your shagpile rug when your guests have one too many G and Ts. Forget the bleached birch and minimalist lines of IKEA– furniture is huge and made of lacquered orange teak, ideally so monstrous it has to be screwed to the wall. Sofas are leatherette and orange, or polyester and orange, to match.
Food: In 70s suburbia M & S antipasti and chives haven’t yet been invented. Instead load up with an industrial-sized pallet of peanuts and crisps pushed around on a hostess trolley. You will need them to mop up all the Liebfraumilch and light ales. Serve in tiny containers that can serve as an ashtray when finished. You could probably get away with a prawn cocktail and a vol-au-vent at a stretch.
Clothing: Maxi dresses, wide lapels and flares, flares, flares. Clinging nylon polo necks. Just watch when you sit down on the sofa in case the friction from the manmade fibres cause a conflagration. Thankfully any such blaze would be orange, to match the décor.