That irresistible 1970s suburban comedy, Abigail's Party, has been revived again; this time at the Watford Palace Theatre under the direction of Pravesh Kumar. With the promise that his new production ‘casts the attitudes to class and social standing of Mike Leigh’s classic in a whole new light’, this was clearly something to look forward to.
Satisfactory with safe performances
Hostess Beverly breezes into the vast sitting room of her house wearing the most fabulous full-length flame dress, because for her it’s all about appearance. Goldy Notay, with great verve, adopts the whining insincere voice, takes control of everything and talks and behaves in what she imagines to be the classiest of manners, but of course, comes across as being entirely false. The play largely revolves around her and Notay certainly keeps this soiree alive, not least with plenty of gin. Her long-suffering, estate-agent husband, Laurence, is anything but a party animal and Orlando Wells clearly displays his reluctance to participate in the fun. He is socially awkward and persists in the investigative questioning of his guests’ likes, dislikes and knowledge in order to establish his cultural superiority.
The marital tensions between the two surface from time in embarrassing moments as they do with the other couple. Although a nurse, Angela appears neither bright nor subtle. Victoria Brazier manages to show the cogs turning in Angela’s head to no avail as she spurts out inappropriate and dumb observations, much to the annoyance of her husband Tony. Max Gell has few words in this role but sustains the air of mystery around the computer operator and former footballer who’s ‘not violent. Just a bit nasty’.
Seated, often uncomfortably, on the ‘real leather’ sofa is Susan. It is her daughter, Abigail, who is having a party down the street and Susan has left her house so as not to stand in the way of the kids having fun. Tina Chiang captures a mother’s anxiety at such a time combined with the unease of being in a social setting to which she is not accustomed, any more than she is to being plied with gin.
Rebecca Brower’s set is dominated by an overwhelmingly tall floor-to-ceiling shelving unit in heavy dark wood that occupies the width of the stage. Unless the idea is that the host’s house significantly predates the rest of the 70s’ properties in the area, then if this is the sitting room (lounge?) they must be living in a mansion. Neither I nor anyone I spoke to could recall it’s like from the period in the sort of suburbia for which playwright Mike Leigh coined the phrase ‘theoretical Romford’.
As for Kumar’s intention that the production would cast ‘a whole new light’ on the play, that always seemed ambitious given that the period, the script and social setting remain the same. What he states elsewhere is that ’bringing a diverse cast was essential to my vision…. I wanted to renew the themes of class and race in the play and open it up to a whole new audience who may not be familiar with the show’.The sum of this is that he cast ‘two women of colour’. This move is questionable, however, in terms of the script. Laurence is clearly unhappy with the latest wave of people moving into the area and who are changing the culture of the neighbourhood, though there is no explicit reference to immigrants or races. Nevertheless, it seems highly unlikely that he would marry a woman from the Punjab or befriend Susan. If it’s just blind casting that is fine but by definition that doesn’t transform this play about class into something to do with race.
Ultimately, this Abigail's Party feels satisfactory with safe performances that remain true to the characters but often don’t achieve the levels of accentuation that the script affords.