Review: Abigail’s Party / Abi, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch

Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and Atiha Sen Gupta’s response piece Abi make for a stirring double bill at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch

“Of all the decades to stuck in, the 1970s, really?!”

Yes sir, she can boogie. Rights issues may mean that Donna Summer has been replaced with Baccara but as Melanie Gutteridge’s Beverly shimmies around her front room, there’s a beautiful lightness and freedom to her that we never get to see again. For the neighbours are coming round, and her husband’s running late, and she’s no lagers in – the lot of a suburban social-climbing hostess sure ain’t an easy one, but not even she could predict how this evening will turn out.

Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party is surely to be considered a British classic. And as it is set in Romford, it makes great sense for Douglas Rintoul to stage it at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch (in co-production with Derby Theatre, Wiltshire Creative and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg). And if there is a slight sense of reverence to this production – there are no great departures from the original – there’s something extremely satisfying in seeing it receive such loving treatment as here. 

Lee Newby’s impeccably observed set design is a vision in brown and orange and well-sourced objets (the number of times I heard ‘oh my mum used to have one of those’, heck, my parents had a bureau just like that when we were growing up!). And Rintoul’s astute casting hits the mark with all five of his company. Liam Bergin and Amy Downham are excellent as newly arrived newlyweds Tony and Ange – his few words revealing so much, her chattiness overcompensating and yet belying the true dynamic of their relationship.

Susie Emmett’s nails the exasperated disdain of Susan, the middle class divorcée trapped in her worst nightmare with people she can’t bear, yet unable to return home as her punk-inclined titular daughter is having a house party. And Gutteridge and Christopher Staines combine explosively as the desperately aspirational Beverly and Laurence, turning their drinks party into a fatal battleground, both withering in their deconstruction of each other’s perceived faults and both blithely unaware as to how much of themselves they’re exposing. Brutally funny at time but sobering too, in how societal expectation can warp us.

This run of Abigail’s Party is accompanied by Abi, a contemporary response piece written by Atiha Sen Gupta from an original idea by Sarah Brigham. It too opens with a woman dancing, setting up for a party, though this time it is Rihanna’s ‘Pon De Replay’ that is blaring out of the speakers. This young woman is Abi, and we discover that she is the granddaughter of Abigail (her of the original party). Her grandma may have Stage 4 cancer but she’s determined to throw her a party to be proud of and bring together a family that is just a little fractured.

It’s an inspired way to further investigate this world. At first it’s off on a tangent – we delve into life as a 15 year old in contemporary Britain as Abi (short for Abisheera) navigates the emotional turmoil of a teenager in love in an age of sexting and social media, the realities of being mixed-race with a mum who can’t understand the true frustrations that come with the question ‘where you from’, and the nagging sensation that there’s more to the reason why her mum and her gran don’t get on. 

Then Abi begins to cleave closer to the world of Abigail’s Party and cleverly picks out underexplored aspects that lend themselves to horribly plausible suggestion. And as past and present collide right in front of her, the weight of responsibility that Abi discovers is fully revealed. Safiyya Ingar (so brilliant in The Box of Delights last Christmas) is genuinely superb in the role. She makes her witty and confident, hugely open-hearted and innocently wide-eyed, so much so that to see her distraught becomes truly affecting even within this short running time. A response to listen to.

Running time: Abigail’s Party 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)/ Abi 60 minutes (without interval) 
Photos: Mark Sepple
Abigail’s Party and Abi are booking at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 22nd September

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