Party Like it's 1977!

22nd February 2019

Mention Abigail’s Party and within seconds someone will have quoted Demis Roussos, ice and lemon or Beaujolais. Mike Leigh’s comedy, first staged more than 40 years ago, is a modern classic ingrained in the collective British psyche. As a new production tours the UK, Optima Magazine talks to director Sarah Esdaile and the cast – above left to right: Vicky Binns, Daniel Casey, Rose Keegan, Calum Callaghan and Jodie Prenger – about what makes the piece so special …

It was the play that made the nation laugh, cry and cringe in equal measure when it was first shown in 1977. The suburban situation comedy of manners that made a huge star of Alison Steadman, when she reprised the role in a tv production later the same year, ensured that middle class dinner parties would never again be seen in the same light.

The story centres around Beverly and her husband Laurence, who are throwing a party for their newlywed neighbours, Tony and Angela; they also invite highly-strung Susan, who’s been banished from the party of her teenage daughter, the epynomous Abigail. Along with an intoxicating mix of free-flowing cocktails, classic disco and cheese-and-pineapple sticks, there’s an even headier dose of clever, but excruciating humour, inter-couple flirtatiousness and thinly disguised marital tension and contempt.

“Essentially, it’s about three sets of neighbours coming together for what should be a nice, jolly evening, explains Black Mirror star Calum Callaghan, who plays Tony. “But it’s the total opposite of that because they’ve all got so much going on individually that they’re not dealing with privately.”

Jodie Prenger, who stars as the outgoing but monstrous hostess Beverly, adds: “It’s uncomfortable and deliciously dark. It’s full of that thing where you don’t really want to watch, but you can’t look away.”

The play is set at a key turning point in British social and political history, just before Thatcher came into power, when there was rise in obsession with consumerism, belongings and position – themes that undoubtedly continue to resonate today.

“It’s about all the primary things that we’re worried about,” Rose Keegan (of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows fame), who’s taken on the role of Susan, sums up, “and will always be worried about until the end of time: aspiration and hunger and thirst and confinement and hope. It’s full of these wonderful sayings and it’s very accessible.”

Coronation Street star Vicky Binns (who plays the meek and childlike Angela) agrees that its timelessness is what makes the play, described by The Guardian as ‘one of the greatest plays about the human condition ever written,’ so enduringly popular. “It hit right at the heart of that moment, but it’s still so identifiable today.” She’s struck by how rapidly and how completely it was embraced by the public consciousness at the time. “It’s amazing!” she continues. “You type ‘things that happened in 1977’ into Google and one of the results is ‘Abigail’s Party premiered’, along with the massive world events that happened at that time.”

She describes watching Abigail’s Party as “like being a fly on the wall at a party that you wouldn’t want to be at. You get to be there without having to dance awkwardly or make chit chat.”

Throughout the play, the narcissistic personality of Beverly dominates; the audience is in turn enthralled and repulsed by her. “The character of Beverley is one of the main things that made it so memorable,” notes Vicky.

Finding just the right actor to play the iconic role was one of the biggest demands of bringing the play to a new, contemporary audience, director Sarah Esdaile confides. “A fundamental challenge for me was escaping from the voice of Alison Steadman, who everyone has in their heads as Beverly. I met Alison and she told me: ‘I was part of the process of creating that character, so I’m intrinsically in it. There’s no point trying to escape me.’ That was so liberating, to realise you don’t have to run away from that.”

“So much came out of improvisation,” Jodie continues. “It’s hard to deliver it in a totally different way. It wouldn’t make sense to change it – you’d look like a wally,” she laughs.

Since Mike Leigh famously created the play through this process of improvisation, before the script was formalised, I wonder if the cast had much chance to bring their own take to any of the characters.

Daniel Casey, who plays Beverly’s snobbish and hen-pecked husband Laurence, says “it’s been a slightly different process creating this production, but ‘yes’, we did some improvisation. My character is an estate agent, and I had several clients coming to look at a flat. I was in character for three hours showing different people round. Just being in the moment and allowing yourself to be that character, even if you look back and think you’ve made the wrong choices, is incredibly liberating and useful.”

Vicky explains that opportunities for improvisation are rare within the acting profession. “It’s not something you often get to do,” she shares. “There’s no room for it in television, where you scramble to do the scene as quickly as possible. Telly is so bitty and sporadic in the way that it’s filmed. Theatre is an organic process where you’re working together as a group.”

It’s about using improvisation in the right circumstances, Sarah emphasises: “We set up scenarios that will really enrich the work that the actors bring to the stage. Often improvisation can be slightly naval gazing and ultimately there’s no evidence of the work. In this case, the subtle dynamics, the differences and the shifts that that work achieves… you’ll be able to smell it on stage.”

The tour began earlier this month, and so far the venues have been really great experiences, claims Jodie. “It’s always interesting to see the different reactions at each venue you go to,’ adds Lancashire-born Vicky. “That’s something that makes it fresh and new each night – you get the input of the audience and their reactions. In general, the further north you get, the more vocal the reaction. That’s not to say people in the south aren’t enjoying it, it’s just that their reaction is more measured…”

“I’m London born and bred and I love London as a city,” remarks Calum, “but you definitely notice when you go to a lot of the smaller cities in the UK that people have a lot more time to talk and be friendly, which is a lovely thing to experience.”

In the age of on-demand entertainment, Calum is keen to extol the wonders of the theatre. “I spend hours on the sofa watching Netflix, sure, but to go to the theatre… it’s about sharing, being in a public space and experiencing something with other people. It’s happening right in front of you. It’s the uniqueness of the experience that you and however many people you’re sitting with at that time get to have. It’s the same being on stage. That’s why, no matter what level lots of actors reach, they want to come back to the stage. You can’t get that same shared experience of adrenalin and joy that comes from live entertainment anywhere else.”

Jodie, who starred in the one-woman UK tour of Shirley Valentine, and has just finished playing the role of Kelly in the production of Kay Mellor’s Fat Friends on its UK tour, agrees: “There is something magical about going to the theatre. You’re sat amongst hundreds of people and you never know what’s going to happen. Switching on the tv, you know what you’re going to get. With theatre anything can happen.”

Mike Leigh’s groundbreaking comedy classic is on a UK tour until April and will be at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre from Monday 18 until Saturday 23 March. For tickets, visit www.atgtickets.com/aylesbury

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