Abigail's Party

Mike Leigh
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under Lyme
(2006)

Elizabeth Marsh as Beverly

Anyone directing a revival of Mike Leigh's seminal play about 1970s Britain faces a real dilemma: does the leading character portray the role as Alison Steadman did so successfully on television and in the theatre - or does she go for a totally different approach?

Patrick Connellan, who directs and designs this New Vic production, commendably gets Elizabeth Marsh to try an alternative interpretation. She dispenses with the annoying voice and exaggerated mannerisms, instead portraying Beverly as a show-off who wants everyone to know that she appreciates the finer things in life.

It's a bold plan - but it doesn't really work. I've seen Alison Steadman in the Beverly role on television and Lizzy McInnerny in the version which toured to Nottingham Theatre Royal a couple of years ago. By the end your insides were almost knotted up because of Beverly's droning voice and endless interfering. You don't get this with Alison Marsh.

She's excellent at nagging her husband Laurence, she dances sensually both on her own and with neighbour Tony, and she's suitably ridiculous during the closing scene in which Laurence has suffered a heart attack.

But Marsh isn't patronising nor domineering enough. She's not irritating when she fusses around her guests, she lacks sarcasm and by the end you merely think you wouldn't like to be in her company rather than wanting to throttle her because she's so infuriating.

The success of this production is undoubtedly Alison Darling as Angela. The neighbourly nurse can be portrayed as a dizzy, downtrodden woman lacking in self-confidence. But Darling plays her as exuberant and too honest for her own good, speaking her mind without thinking first. It's a glorious interpretation.

She convincingly becomes progressively more drunk as the evening progresses but immediately sobers up when Laurence becomes ill. She impressively takes charge in a moving finale punctuated only by Beverly's idiotic ramblings.

Meriel Scholfield is delightful as the understated Sue, mother of the unseen Abigail, who tries to forget what her daughters' friends might be doing to her house only to be constantly reminded of the probabilities.

Leigh's incisive, sharp script doesn't present the men in the play in a favourable light - but Nick Raggett and Andrew Grose ensure their characters aren't one-dimensional.

Raggett is workaholic estate agent Laurence who's suffering from stress. Most of it is caused by Beverly. "To be honest, he's a boring little bugger at times," his wife confides to her friends. But Raggett brings out all the nuances of the character; although he's henpecked, he desperately wants to break the hold that she has on him. He sees Sue as more of an intellectual equal than Beverly.

Grose is comfortable as former footballer turned computer operator Tony who has a mean streak and would prefer what he sees as the sophistication of a woman like Beverly to his wife who causes him major embarrassments.

Performances at the New Vic are in the round, so this can pose design problems with certain productions. Connellan has got around this by using a half-sized room divider to separate the retro kitchen from the living room complete with authentic '70s memorabilia right down to the Trimphone.

The theatre's intimate atmosphere draws you in to the disagreements and jealousies of Beverly and Laurence's home. Unfortunately it also magnifies any weaknesses in the production. It was a daring decision by Connellan to present us with a nonconformist view of Beverly. It doesn't quite succeed. That takes the gloss off what is otherwise a fine evening's entertainment which puts you in a genuine party spirit.

"Abigail's Party" runs until February 11th

Reviewer: Steve Orme