Abigail’s Party, starring Amanda Abbington, starts next week at Cambridge Arts Theatre
Following leading roles in top TV dramas Sherlock and Mr Selfridge, the much in-demand actress will be appearing on stage in Cambridge from April 10 to April 15.
Embarking on her career 20 years ago with small parts in popular series of the day such as The Bill, the 43-year-old actress has always displayed an impressive versatility – set to be demonstrated once more when Abigail’s Party stops off in our city, 40 years to the month after it premiered in the West End.
Written by Mike Leigh, the suburban play is the story of a lower middle class couple, former department store cosmetics demonstrator Beverly (Abbington) and estate agent Laurence (Ben Caplan, Sgt Noakes in Call the Midwife) invite their new neighbours, computer operator and ex-professional footballer Tony and nurse Ange, round for drinks, along with nervous divorcee Susan, who is concerned about the party her 15-year-old daughter Abigail is throwing down the road.
As that party gets out of hand, Beverly and Laurence’s soiree also descends into chaos. Comedy, drama and tragedy come together to create a memorable piece of theatre, which was made into a highly successful TV play starring Alison Steadman as Beverly.
The production, first screened in November 1977 as part of long-running BBC series Play for Today, was ranked 11th in the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest British TV programmes, voted for by industry professionals and compiled in 2000.
Amanda spoke to the Cambridge Independent from Eastbourne, where she was set to perform that evening.
“My agent rang and said ‘You’ve been approached to play Beverley. Would you like to do it?’,” she recalled. “It’s always been an iconic play for me. I grew up with Alison Steadman’s film version – it’s one of my favourite things and the benchmark of a brilliant character.
“I met the director, Sarah Esdaile, and we had a chat. I read a few bits and pieces with her and we talked about the character and how much we both love the play, and I decided to do it.
“It was a big decision because it’s such a massive play and such an iconic character. It wasn’t a decision that I took lightly, but I’m glad I did because I’m having a whale of a time – it’s great.”
Amanda, who will be performing in Cambridge for the first time, said of Beverly: “She’s not a very nice character.
“What’s beautiful about this play is that everybody’s flawed and everybody’s in their own private hell. What Sarah’s done with this production is highlighted how dark the whole piece is, with really big laughs – we have some fantastic set pieces that are really funny. The undercurrent is quite dark and unpleasant and actually quite interesting to watch.
“That was what drew me to it: that Sarah wanted to not make it a farce. I think previous productions, both amateur and professional, have leant more towards farce, and it is farcical, but there’s more substance to it than that.
“It’s what Mike Leigh does best – that middle England dark underbelly where everything’s not okay, which is great to watch as an audience member.”
The poster for the production shows Amanda resplendent in a colourful party dress, holding a drink and a lit cigarette, with a mischievous look on her face – the mirror opposite of Miss Mardle, the kind-hearted, rather strait-laced character she portrayed so memorably in ITV’s Mr Selfridge from 2013 to 2016.
“Yes, I’ve made her really minxy,” explained Amanda. “I didn’t want to make her an out-and-out evil villain. Nobody’s like that, everybody has dark and light sides, so I wanted her to have a little bit of a twinkle.
“I wanted people to sort of like her despite themselves, and she’s a big departure from Miss Mardle because she’s very playful and selfish – and spoilt. She’s got this very spoilt heart and I quite like that. She craves attention.”
Amanda agreed that playing a variety of roles is one of the perks of being an actress.
“Oh, it’s a gift,” she said. “That’s why you do the job, so you can get to do such diverse stuff. I’m very lucky at the moment that I’m getting to do that – it’s a real joy.
“Also, because I haven’t done theatre in about two-and-a-half years, so to get my toe back into it with such an amazing play is a lot of fun.”
The aforementioned Ben Caplan, Charlotte Mills, Ciarán Owens and Rose Keegan round off the cast. “The rest of the cast are so gorgeous,” enthused Amanda, who says that audiences have loved the play so far. “There are five of us and we all get on very well.
“We have a lovely time together; we meet up and have lunch and dinner with each other. We’re all just one big happy unit – the understudies and backstage staff as well – and it makes for a lovely tour. It’s definitely a collaborative piece – it’s not a vehicle for one person.”
Asked about Sherlock, the acclaimed BBC series in which she appeared as Mary Morstan, who became the wife of John Watson (played by ex-partner Martin Freeman), Amanda replied: “I don’t think there’ll be any more for the foreseeable future.
“Everybody’s very busy with lots of projects, including Mark [Gatiss] and Steven [Moffat], the writers. I don’t even know if Mary will come back.
“Andrew Scott [who played deceased criminal Jim Moriarty] once said to me ‘You never leave Sherlock’ because you always have flashbacks. So I don’t think there’ll be a fifth series yet, but never say never – you never know.”
Abigail’s Party runs at Cambridge Arts Theatre from Monday, April 10 to Saturday, April 15.
The show starts at 7.45pm each evening, and there are Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm.
Tickets are £23, £33, £38 or £42 for all the shows, except the Thursday matinee, which is £23, £28, £33 and £38. All prices include a £3 booking fee.
For more information, visit cambridgeartstheatre.com.