Sunday, July 21

Abigail’s Party – Hope Street Theatre

The Northern Comedy Theatre’s Abigail’s Party is another casualty of the closure of the Epstein.

Relocated to the Hope Street Theatre, a tiny, intimate auditorium of just 85 cramped seats, located incongruously between a Masonic Hall, displaying the ritual paraphernalia of set squares and compasses, and the excellent Liverpool Arts Bar, the audience are projected almost on to the stage itself. Yet this only serves to foster the claustrophobic, pressure-cooker effect that this play demands.

Devised in 1977 by Mike Leigh, the play observes the Classical Unities of time, action and place, depicting a drinks party thrown by the appalling Beverly (Kathryn Chambers) and her husband Laurence (Franklyn Jacks) for new neighbours Tony and Angela. Also present is Susan, who has been invited to take refuge from the party her daughter, Abigail, is hosting in her own home.

The evening is an exercise in social mobility: Beverly seeks to promote herself above her new neighbours and has apparently invited the more elevated Susan to bolster her middle class credentials. Laurence, a cultural snob, sees the olive as a symbol of social success, of having arrived, despite the fact that, as Beverly protests and her guests affirm, nobody actually likes olives.

The first act is an excruciating study of social awkwardness, faux pas and one-upmanship, split down the gendered lines of which car the men drive and whether the couch the ladies sit upon is real leather or leatherette. Act II sees all pretence at social niceties disintegrate as the free-flowing booze takes effect, and the cracks in both marriages are cranked wide open.

The eponymous Abigail is only ever present in the third person and represents another cultural clash, that of the generations. Not bound by class distinctions, the punk-zippered Abigail is hosting a bash of uninhibited sex, drugs and rock and roll.

It’s hard to transcend Alison Steadman’s original Beverly, a role she not just inhabited but, in large part, created, thanks to director Mike Leigh’s collaborative and improvisational methodology. Steadman’s Beverly is a caricature, a monster really, and Chambers’ portrayal of Beverly feels at times like a pastiche of a parody, albeit a good one.  I very much enjoyed the physical comedy of her drunken dance-grope of Tone. Steven Arnold, erstwhile Ashley Peacock off Corrie, is given little to say as a clearly reluctant guest but whose explosive interjections represent an old-fashioned pressure cooker blowing its top.

Likewise, Judith Martindale as Susan, too posh to point out how awful it all is, says little more than “I’m fine, thank you,” but gives great grimace. Cate Leight’s Ange, too nice and too dim to understand when she is being put in her place, twitters away convincingly. I found Franklyn Jacks’ interpretation of Laurence a touch shambling; I’d have preferred him more suave.

The set has been brought to the front of the stage and boxed in, inviting us into that living room where awkward social exchanges take place against a backdrop of Seventies’ sideboards and record players. The memorabilia is mostly authentic, although the bottle of Bombay Sapphire was anachronistic, being launched only in the late Eighties. Nevertheless, set and cast combine well to create an atmosphere of excruciating tension, which is only relieved by the final shocking turn of events.

Reviewer: Miranda Green

Reviewed: 16th February 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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