Abigail’s Party, the archetypal 1970s drinks party from hell, returns in a new touring production that features a perfectly awful hostess.
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
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Tron Theatre, Glasgow
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Oran Mor, Glasgow
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IT’S NOT FOR NOTHING that people refer to the 20th century as “the century of the common man”. Just for a moment, in the years between 1945 and 1990, a combination of rising affluence and political pressure conspired to create the sense, all across the West, of a world in which inequality and privilege were gradually being replaced with a new age of democracy and equal opportunities; and if there’s one play in English that simultaneously captures and mocks that brief dream of social mobility, at the moment when it all began to fall apart, then it’s Mike Leigh’s devastating devised drama Abigail’s Party, first seen in London in 1977, and now visiting Edinburgh in a memorable touring production from the Theatre Royal, Bath, and the London Chocolate Factory.
Significantly, the audience begin to shriek with laughter as soon as they see Mike Britton’s set, dominated by a huge three-piece suite in sickly brown leather, and a twinkling fibre-optic lamp; not to mention the clothes and haircuts, an array of flared trousers, Indian cotton dresses and out-of-control floppy fringes that seem almost incredible to modern eyes.
And then there’s the story itself, a classic piece of real-time drama in which thirtysomething hostess-from-hell Beverly – bored witless by her marriage to stuffed-shirt estate agent Laurence – pours drink down the throats of three hapless neighbours at a rate that seems designed to provoke disaster. In Lindsay Posner’s vivid if sometimes slightly shapeless production, Hannah Waterman – best known as Laura Beale in EastEnders – gives a performance as Beverly that’s both utterly horrifying and completely compelling; the rest of the cast – when they can get a word in – are almost equally persuasive, with Katie Lightfoot and Samuel James particularly impressive as young neighbours Ange and Tony. And if the ultimate message of Leigh’s play is a troubling one – he seems to suggest that British society, once cut loose from the Victorian class system and strict religious morality, lacked the inner resources to become anything other than stupid, cruel, greedy, vulgar and drunk – this fierce production nails the grain of truth in Leigh’s nightmare vision with horrible precision, redeemed by a fine sense of comedy and irony.
The two young women at the centre of Peter Arnott’s fine 1985 debut play White Rose, by contrast, represent the precise political opposite of Beverly’s moment of grasping, self-interested materialism. Ace pilot Lily Litvak and engineer Ina Passportnikova were both members of the legendary 586th fighter regiment of the Soviet air force, and both lived and fought, in the early 1940s, through times of unimaginable danger and deprivation, inspired only by the dream of a Soviet victory over the forces of Nazism, and of a new future for the people’s revolution.
Arnott’s 100-minute, three-handed play is a fascinating piece of work, a kind of theatrical cabaret of dialogue, monologue and reflection that confronts vital issues to do with individual freedom, ambition and happiness in a time of herculean collectivist effort, and it’s now revived at last – after an inexplicable 28 years – by the enterprising young Borders-based touring company Firebrand.
Sadly, though, the full historic weight and significance of the story somehow seems to escape Richard Baron’s young acting company, led by Lesley Harcourt as Lily, with Alison O’Donnell as Ina and Robert Jack as Lily’s lover Alexei. They work their way through the text with great energy and commitment and – in Jack’s case – considerable theatrical flair. Often, though, there’s something superficial in their tone, body-language and acting style that fails to match the resonance of the historic images projected behind the action – courtesy of some fine work by designer Edward Lipscomb and video man Tim Reid – something that makes the play seem more like an awayday episode of River City than a grand stage poem about love and death, at one of the great turning-points of the 20th century.
As for David Ireland’s short comedy Most Favoured – first seen last year as one of the Traverse festival Dream Plays, and now revived for the current Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season -– it faithfully reflects the post-millennial mood of a culture in which the idea of progress through politics has largely failed, to be replaced by strange spiritual yearnings and dreams. In a hotel room in Edinburgh, during the festivals, Mary and Mike are having one of those embarrassing morning-after conversations, after a one-night stand. She, it emerges, is a woman about to turn 40, indulging in a year of sex with as many men as she can find, in an effort to become pregnant before it’s too late; but if her plight is a familiar one, it gradually becomes clear that he is something else entirely, and that what we are seeing is not so much a conversation as an annunciation, in the classic Biblical sense.
In this slightly extended 45-minute version of Ireland’s comedy, the joke of Michael’s mysterious origins, and his otherworldly ecstasy over the unfamiliar joys of Kentucky Fried Chicken, is played out for far too long; Richard Rankin, as Mike, should learn how to quit when he’s winning, in comic terms. Gabriel Quigley remains luminous and delightful, though, as the non-Virgin Mary; and at the end, there’s one delicious moment of peace, when she briefly lets herself glimpse the possibility that her soul and body really have been chosen to magnify the Lord, in a way that’s familiar to all mothers, and yet completely miraculous.
• Abigail’s Party runs until 2 March. White Rose is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until Saturday, at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 13-16 March, and on tour. Most Favoured is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 5-9 March.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
Stand back everyone, because Beverly is pouring the drinks, and she does it large. In Abigail’s Party, at the King’s, Hannah Waterman gives a blistering performance as nightmare 1970s hostess Beverly, all seething sexual frustration in a turquoise nylon leisure gown. It’s a supremely brave comic performance, that combines desperate glamour with jaw-dropping levels of selfishness and vulgarity; and what’s shocking is just how recognisable Beverly is, as poster girl for a society that won the chance of freedom, and decided to use it mainly to buy tat, to do some loveless wife-swapping, and to get very, very drunk.
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