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Review of Abigail's Party by Mike Leigh at the Stantonbury Theatre, Milton Keynes

By some distance my favourite play never seen performed live before is Abigail's Party by Mike Leigh. It also very possibly might be "my favourite play" altogether. It is to me a perfectly judged and written piece which sublimely creates five vivid characters who generally hate each other (even those married to one another) and liberally tosses them into a melting pot of hostility, class struggle and sadness. Across its path we get simmering rivalries, high comedy and also at one point cleverly removing the males of the piece to have a perfectly placed woman's chitchat. It is to me, just perfect.

This opinion of course comes from just one version of the show, the 1977 (a good year) BBC TV production of the original Hampstead play, which included a career defining performance from Alison Steadman as Beverly and all but one of the original theatre productions cast. They all make the roles their own and indeed working with Mike Leigh at the time, they very much created the characters persona's. So we have a rather solid foundation to the characters through those individual performers, so how would new people in the roles come across? The opportunity to find out was to hard to resist, therefore when I found that The Play's The Thing Theatre Company was to perform it fifteen minutes train ride (and a little walk) away from me down in Milton Keynes. I had to make the effort to find out.

It was most certainly worth the effort as while it was clearly heavily influenced by that classic first edition (how could it not be), both the performances and production were of an extremely high standard. On first entering the theatre (and a gorgeous theatre it is too, including lovely comfy seats), we are presented with a clever spin on the room set. I am not sure if this is a standard, but the room is presented on the diagonal rather than flat on. This is a neat design and that as well as the lovely retro feel is a great credit to designer Kevin Jenkins. Also those famous album covers are all present (I understand loving recreated), so we have Demis and Tom in all their glory on the shelf.

The performances are of an equally high standard, starting with our lead Beverly played with cutting edge and sexual frisson by Dawn Murphy. She is excellent throughout and her suggestive remarks to the relatively silent Tony are wonderful. Tony is played with the correctly styled "Yeahs" by Liam Tims and remains for much of the play an enigma, with his true character only coming out in the second act. Andy Watkins as the pompous Laurence is wonderful also, with his best moments in particularly in his second act including his underlying diatribe against Tony, and of course that classic Shakespeare line that I love so much. He is also suitably heated in his conversation during those moments when Beverly and Tony are getting to know each other more.

Heather Johnson's Angela is some distance physically from her original incarnation, she is nowhere near plain enough and I missed those glorious seventies specs. However that highly irritating voice is performed to perfection and you can't help but feel sorry for her especially towards the end when things are given that grimmer edge. It does however feel like Johnson's Angela is a little tougher than the original. Finally we have the mother of the title character, Susan, played with suitable refinement by Kerry Willison-Parry. It is a suitably quiet role, but performed lovingly.

They are without question all wonderful performances which are done without the feel of the great weights of those epic first incarnations upon their shoulders. It must be a challenge and indeed brave to try to recreate classic characters which many will so associate with just one performer. However this was a wonderful production of for me an all time classic. Oh and just so you know, I can't stand olives.


Performance viewed: Saturday 16th May, 2015 (matinee) at the Stantonbury Theatre, Milton Keynes.

The Play's The Thing Theatre Compnay performed Abigail's Party between Tuesday 12th and Saturday 16th May, 2015 at the Stantonbury Theatre, Milton Keynes

For further details about The Play's The Thing Theatre Company visit their website at: http://playsthethingtheatrecompany.co.uk/

For further details about the Stantonbury Theatre visit their website at: http://www.stantonburytheatre.co.uk/

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