Review: Abigail’s Party, Opera House Manchester

This touring production of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party opts for comedy rather than tragicomedy at the Opera House Manchester, losing a little depth in order to find more laughs

“Let’s get pissed”

I spotted at least two people dressed up as Beverly at this matinée of Abigail’s Party at Manchester’s Opera House, a sure sign of cult status for any play. But it also means that their particular version of it can be stuck in aspic, making it difficult for any new interpretation to break through one’s own pre-programmed laugh track, to offer up a new reading of an oh-so-familiar text.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone – for me, ‘Demis Roussos’ is up there with ‘a handbag’ in terms of iconic lines – but Mike Leigh’s play has always struck me as a desperately sad one rather than an out and out comedy. Last year’s production at Hornchurch and the Menier’s 2012 production brought those sour notes but interestingly, Sarah Esdaile’s touring production opts for out and out farce.

It’s a choice that pays off cannily, especially in Jodie Prenger’s accomplished performance, full of all the sledgehammer acerbity she can muster and an almost parodic physical presence as she wields her bosom as a weapon. The pay-off may be that she’s a comic rather than tragicomic figure but in the larger picture of Janet Bird’s perfectly detailed set design, it kinda works.

So too with the darker tones of Ange and Tony’s marriage. There’s some disturbing stuff here from Vicky Binns and Calum Callaghan but much of it gets lost in the laughter, culminating in some extraordinary funny business as the curtain falls. But even that can be interpreted as a signifier of just how much women were forced to put up with in the name of marriage.

A different perspective then and as ever, it’s a genuine joy to listen to this script – the olives, the Beaujolais, the books, the booze… And there’s fun to be had in working out who you would be in this scenario – no two ways about it, I’d be Sue! 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Abigail’s Party is booking at the Opera House Manchester until 13th April and then tours to King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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