28 March 2018

Review: Abigail's Party

Abigail's Party
22 March 2018
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
to 21April

Katherine Tonkin, Dan Frederiksen, Pip Edwards, Benjamin Rigby, Zoe Boesen Photo by Jeff Busby

What happens when the intense character-led  naturalism of writer-director Mike Leigh meets the stylisation and aesthetic-led inspiration of director Stephen Nicolazzo? How do you queer Leigh?

Leigh's works are developed through intense improvisation and research by the actors and creative team. In some of his films, the actors don't meet each other until they the camera is there. Abigail's Party was developed over ten weeks in 1977; it was meant to be a short and forgotten season at Hamstead Theatre because Leigh had moved onto making films. (Life is Sweet is my favourite.) The short run was extended and the only reason it was subsequently made for BBC television rather than transferring to the West End was because Alison Steadman (who played central-character Beverly) and Leigh were expecting their first baby and there was no way that anyone else as going to step into the role.

Thirty-something Beverly and her husband, Laurence, are having their new younger neighbours Angela and Tony over for after-dinner drinks. Divorced single mum Susan also lives on the street and has been invited  because her teenager daughter, Abigail, is having a party. It's nice to have the neighbours around for a G&T with ice and lemon, a cheesey-pineapple nibble, and a bit of Demis Roussos on the record player.

The MTC loves a play about middle-class middle-aged suburbia and it's easy to find the connection to 1977 suburban Essex where Thatcher's conservatism is about to be welcomed and despised. Here, it's more important that your neighbours see that you're doing well, with posh beer and a new car, than actually getting to know you. Does that ever change?

Leigh's work is all about what's hidden and what we don't say to each other, even though it controls every thought and action.

It's so ready for a queer makeover and to be explored from a very different perspective.

So why does this production feel stifled?

The first thing that strikes about Anna Cordingley's design is that it looks like a Eugyeene Teh design – he designed the costumes – with it's monochromatic spaces and curtains. The central living room is magnificently orange with shag pile carpet, impossibly-large sunken steps, an over-sized room divider (which I'd love for my living room) and a magnificent array of 1970s op-shop finds. It's surrounded by three other hints of rooms that are perfect in the opening scene and sit almost begging to be used for the rest of the night. By placing the world in a box – a world best known as a boxed TV version –  the fourth wall is dropped so firmly that it's difficult to reach in and feel a part of it.

Teh's costumes are more complex. They are a redesign of the late 70s with a sequinned jumpsuit, tiny mini Cheongsam (cultural appropriation isn't new), a whiter than white suit, hide-everything black pants, facial hair that came back, hot-roller curls, and slept-in-plaits-to-get-this-amazing crimpy frizz. It's not a recreation of the time, but an idea of what it looks like through today's eyes and ideas.

As the 70s-cum-now look is turned up to wow and seen at from the outside, the performances and direction start with style and brings the characters into the aesthetic. This technique has been gloriously effective in Little Ones's works like Psycho Beach Party, Dracula and Dangerous Liaisons, but Abigail feels stuck between styles.

Behind the naturalism wall, the camped-up style seems forced with its drink spilling and slipping off couches. While it's clearly beginning to question and subvert the manners and repression of the time, it's not bringing the audience into the world and letting us see it though new eyes. It's laughing at them, not at us.

So much of what we've come to expect from this company (although it's not a Little Ones Theatre show) feels like it's been held back. It has the aesthetic without the gutsy camp structure to support it. We're at Beverly's when we expected to be at Abigail's where everything is rejected, questioned and recreated.

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