Beverly and husband Laurence have opened their house for a party, and new neighbour's Tony and Angela are invited, along with neighbour Sue, who due to her daughter Abigail's party, has found herself turned out of her own house. An evening of fun is set to occur, or not.
The role of the domineering and generally unlikeable Beverly is so much ingrained in most people who have seen the original as being Alison Steadman's that any actor attempting to play the character must feel a controlling factor upon their shoulder, and as such this character more than any other in director Sarah Esdaile's version is left untouched with this new interpretation. Jodie Prenger is superb though, surprisingly so at times, despite her playing Steadman as Beverly more than Prenger as Beverly. It's a shame at times that nothing new is tried with the character, but perhaps also it feels wise.
This version seems often too sucked of the tough drama that it truly has, and makes Leigh's play work. Tony's controlling of Angela is underplayed, with references to his not allowing her to drive and the underlying hints of violence easily discarded. Meanwhile, the role of Sue, so sad at times is given too much of a comic performance, with Rose Keegan too light in delivery, while definitely a perfect vocal delivery, her irritating mannerisms end up making the audience laugh far too often when they should be feeling the sympathy for the character.
Daniel Casey's Laurence is a little manic at times, perhaps a shade too Basil Fawlty even, however, there is a nice underlying tension between his character and Beverly which is one of the few surviving areas of drama. Very much unlike his key scene in the second act, which lacks so much of the drama it should hold and feels poorly staged as well.
The direction also has its issues in a larger venue, with blocking clearly designed for more compact audiences. An example of which is Tony's arrival, quickly heading over stage right to stand by a pouffe and those in the audience on the left don't see his face again for about 15 minutes. It's clearly a victim of the space at the venue as the production would be one hundred per cent better at times in a smaller theatre when the audience get the full picture of both stage and performers.
Abigail's Party is a brilliant play, no question, and while this isn't its best version, too much of the drama has been removed especially, it's still entertaining enough if you haven't seen the infinitely superior original. As it is, it is fine production, however, when you have the quality of a play like this, fine maybe just isn't enough.
Mike Leigh's script still sparkles with wit, but this production sadly fails to channel the drama.
Performance reviewed: Monday 4th March 2019 at the Royal & Derngate (Derngate), Northampton.
Abigail's Party runs at Royal & Derngate until Saturday 9th March 2019 before continuing its tour.