Director: John Shooter
Written By: Mike Leigh
Starring: Anna Hardwick, Dylan Roberts, Cody Ray Thompson, Claire Burns, Astrid Van Wieren
Runtime: 2 hours, 15 minute intermission
British Comedy is an acquired taste, to say the least. Like the Gin and Tonics so plentiful in the play, it’s somewhat standard, but then suddenly it hits you, and everything is awful and funny at the same time. It depends which type of drunk, err, laughs, you’re in the mood for.
Abigail’s Party is, in fact, not about Abigail’s party. Abigail is Sue’s 15-year-old daughter, but this play is not a play of the follies of youth or the energy of the teenager. No, this is the story of five 30 or 40 somethings getting drunk, so drunk that they begin to lose their veneers of British politesse and let their true colours show. Since it’s the 1970s here, those colours are frequently orange.
Set and costumes were fab, to say the least. It was quite the elaborate set, every detail carefully thought through, from the orange shag carpeting, to the hanging spider plants in macramé baskets, to the fully stocked bar, and the collections on the book shelves. Clearly someone studied up very hard on the 1970s, and then hit up Queen West vintage spots for all they were worth. The dedication and precision of it all was very effective, transporting the audience with the actors to English suburbia in the 1970s, a time of clashing generations, new and old views, and new and old things; all things present in the set.
Speaking of the actors, they were extremely good. When putting on a British play set in the 1970s, it is quite clear where this could go: very, very campy very, very fast. This fate is avoided through the use of clever subtlety and a reserved hand in grandiose gestures. Snide “blink and you miss it” type looks and layered digs were the weapons of choice between the couples, Beverly & Lawrence and Angie & Tony. Despite the fact that the whole play was very heavily scripted, the dialogue did not feel forced; it felt like a natural exchange between a group of adults with very complicated relationships.
The whole idea with Abigail’s Party originally when it was written in 1977 was that it was a “play of the times,” embodying class tensions, satire of British politesse, the kitsch of the 70s, and the changing status of women and marriage. It was an extremely sharp blade then, exposing all the characters at the end as the horrible people that they are, and denouncing the 1970s while embracing them. It would have been interesting to see how this play could have been translated into the 21st century, rather than just transposed. As it stands currently, the pointed wit of the play is often lost to cheap laughs and audiences looking for nostalgia.
Abigail’s Party was as funny as it was painful, second hand embarrassment in abundance for the audience, for better and for worse. If I were ever invited again, I would decline in favour of definitely checking out Abigail’s actual party, going on next door in the story, and finding out once and for all why Tony’s shirt was wet.