Review: Abigail’s Party at the Opera House

Never has there been a play that depicts an era so well than Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party.

Set in the 70’s it’s awash with references to the time when cheese and pineapple on a stick was the ultimate canape offering, paisley prints were all the rage and it was fashionable to smoke like a chimney.

From the moment you take your seats at the Opera House, you are presented with Janet Bird’s depiction of the suburban semi in which all the action takes place. Bird has all the nods to the key design elements of the period; there’s wood panels galore adorning walls and ceilings, a pull-down drinks area and a fibre optic lamp to set the mood.

If you’ve never seen the play before it focuses on one night in the lives of suburban socialite Beverly and her husband Laurence. The pair are hosting a get together for the newcomers to their street, married couple Tony and Angela, plus their next door neighbour Susan who’s been banished from the party of her teenage daughter Abigail.

Jodie Prenger leads the way as Beverly and shimmy’s onto the stage every inch the overbearing and cringe worthy Essex wife. Anne Vosser’s casting of the musical theatre star, made famous from winning the BBC talent show I’d Do Anything is just genius. Prenger is perfect for the role; her mannerisms, hilarious facial expressions and embodiment of ‘the hostess with the mostess’ is a delight to witness.

It’s a hard act for any actress to follow after Alison Steadman created the role and has been synonymous with Beverly ever since, however Prenger does not let that phase her and instead grabs the opportunity to shine and makes the most of every gift of a line from Mike Leigh.

Joining Jodie are a stellar cast including former Coronation Street star Vicky Binns as Angela, Midsummer Murders Calum Callaghan as Tony, Daniel Casey as Lawrence and Rose Keegan as Sue.

All are incredible throughout as the tension in the house builds during the evening soiree. Binns has the audience in stitches as Angela attempts to dance after one too many gin and tonics and Keegan’s odd-ball version of Sue sees her put her stamp on the role and really make it her own.

Whilst the women may seem the main focus in the play, the men are equally as impressive with both Callaghan and Casey slowly simmering in their rivalry to an eruptive boiling point.

When the play originally opened in 1977 Mike Leigh’s work was hailed ground-breaking as the bulk of it was created through improvisation. Whilst this touring production sticks to the script that came from that original incarnation, director Sarah Esdaile has cleverly incorporated Leigh’s methods into the development.

During the rehearsal period Esdaile allowed the actors to improvise around their given circumstances on the day of Abigail’s Party and that technique has been effective in giving the five actors a sense of realism to the characters.

Abigail’s Party may be stuck in a 70s time-warp but the play is still as wonderful a watch for today’s audience as it was over 40 years ago. You will cringe, you will cry with laughter and you will have Demis Roussos’ music playing in your head long after you leave the theatre.

To quote Beverly – go see it whilst it’s in Manchester “You know what I mean”.

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Runs at Opera House, Manchester until 13th April

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