The ‘State-of-the-Nation’ classic comedy, Abigail’s Party has been shown countless times over the past few decades. The play was written in 1977 by Mike Leigh for stage and television. It was the character of Beverly that stole the nation’s heart, originally played and created by Alison Steadman (known to modern audiences as Pam from Gavin and Stacey). Steadman’s Essex accent became an iconic and fundamental part of the piece.
Entering the King’s Theatre, I wondered how this version would measure up. Jodie Prenger certainly had big shoes to fill. With such a dated script I was interested to see what new direction the work would take in such a drastically different era.
The premise is a simple one. Beverly and Laurence invite the neighbours round for the evening, while Abigail, Sue’s daughter, holds a rambunctious teenage party down the street. The host Beverly flits about, fag in mouth, slurring the Essex catch-phrase ‘you know what I mean?’ as she pressures everyone to drink and smoke with her. She is desperate for everyone to ‘enjoy themselves’ so she can have a break from her dull, monotonous life. Cracks appear very quickly as the characters can barely keep up the appearance of happy suburbia. With failing marriages and extreme passive-aggressiveness, it soon becomes clear everyone is miserable. I was reminded how expertly Leigh has managed to tap into middle England’s neurosis.
Watching Beverly dance about her living room through her big bay windows, I realised that this was simply a carbon copy of the original. Prenger gave a brilliant impression of Steadman’s voice and mannerisms, making the audience laugh and giggle in glee. But an impression was all it was. Even the stunningly intricate set looked very familiar, down to the shag carpet, three-piece-suite, and mini bar. Topped off with the iconic cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, this couldn’t get more 70’s. I couldn’t help but feel slightly depressed at the repeated ‘only £21,000’ to buy a house I couldn’t dream of affording in my current lifetime.
The audience is trapped with the cast in their never-ending nightmare evening. Through the boredom, the awkwardness and the chaos, the throwing up in the toilet, awkward wife-swapping dances and even emotional abuse. I don’t personally understand the enjoyment of watching this sort of mundane chit-chat. It mostly caused flashbacks of my own to many a night at a family member’s house, staring at the door.
Sexist and racist remarks run rampant in this production: the ‘Chinese man’, the ‘coloured boys’ and the distaste at the neighbourhood becoming more ‘mixed.’ Not to mention the repetitive rape jokes. These statements hung in the air like a bad smell, unchallenged and ignored. Tony’s violent energy towards his wife Angela is also routinely forgiven and brushed under the carpet.
The audience around me were clearly enjoying the nostalgia, however. They were pleased the canon remained the same and could laugh joyfully and carefree. As a member of the ‘millennial generation’, I can see how this could be difficult to watch. My optimistic peers are perhaps hopeful to eradicate that sort of behaviour. But with the recent political climate, it is clear that very little has changed concerning these attitudes. That still hidden from view, middle Britain is still miserable and still having these discussions over a glass of gin with lemon and ice. Not, in sum, an experience I would pay for.