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Abigail's Party brings fun & frolics tinged with tragedy to the Cambridge Arts Theatre

Dress rehearsal of Abigails Party at the Theatre Royal, Bath, March 2017. Picture: Nobby Clark
Dress rehearsal of Abigails Party at the Theatre Royal, Bath, March 2017. Picture: Nobby Clark

It's now 40 years to the month since Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party first premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 1977 and, to celebrate, a new touring version, starring Sherlock star Amanda Abbington, is on this week in Cambridge. Adrian Peel went along to the opening night.

Abigails Party starring Amanda Abbington
Abigails Party starring Amanda Abbington

Not only is Abigail’s Party a hugely popular stage play, it was also made into a successful TV version, which aired in November 1977 on the BBC’s Play for Today starring Alison Steadman and Tim Stern.

Having not the seen the original play or TV adaption, I was looking forward to seeing this slice of real-life drama, with dark tragi-comic undertones, from the pen of one of Britain’s most prolific screenwriters.

Amanda Abbington stars as Beverly, a pushy, lower middle class housewife. She is married to the long-suffering Laurence, portrayed here by Ben Caplan (perhaps best known as Sergeant Noakes in the BBC’s Call the Midwife).

The set lovingly recreates a 1970s sitting room and when Abbington took to the stage alone in a white dress and began dancing provocatively to Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby, the scene was set.

Beverly and Laurence’s fraught relationship is expertly played out by Abbington and Caplan and the attention to period detail is impressive – right down to Laurence’s briefcase and the issues of Good Housekeeping magazine on display.

Charlotte Mills is delightfully scatty and over-the-top as Angela, while her husband, the rather moody Tony, is played by Ciaran Owens.

They are the first guests to arrive at the party and Beverly flirts shamelessly with Tony. Beverly is a domineering and wholly unlikeable character, but Abbington successfully portrays her vulnerable side – which makes you almost feel sorry for her in her humdrum existence and never-ending struggles with the conventionality of life in the suburbs.

The introduction of Sue (Rose Keegan), whose 15-year-old daughter Abigail is having a party down the road, adds an extra dimension, as she is a quieter, more reserved and decidedly more sophisticated character.

Keegan’s performance was one of the highlights for me, as she politely accepts Beverly’s offer of a refill each time in a typical, not-wanting-to-offend, middle-class manner.

The dynamic changes somewhat in the second half, and characters who were fairly quiet in the first half (mainly Laurence and Tony) become more vocal and ultimately more aggressive.

There are enough twists, turns and unexplained goings-on to hold the attention, and the ending, which I won’t spoil, is shocking, tragic and brilliantly acted.

This production, directed by Sarah Esdaile, had me laughing out loud, cringing, singing along to the music (Elvis and Demis Roussos were two of the artists played) and wondering what was going to happen next.

I love stories that disect the complexities and behavioural quirks of the English class system and Abigail’s Party is one of the best examples I’ve seen.

Abigail’s Party runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, April 15.

The show starts at 7.45pm and there is also a matinee today (Thursday) and Saturday at 2.30pm.

Tickets: £23-£42 (including a £3 booking fee).

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