Abigail’s Party, HT Rep, Harrogate Theatre/Phil & Ben Productions, at Harrogate Theatre, 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk
HARROGATE Theatre’s HT Rep 2022 season of Three Plays, Three Weeks, One Cast opens with Mike Leigh’s caustic comedy Abigail’s Party, written in 1977, the year of The Queen’s Silver Jubilee and now revived in the year of her Platinum Jubilee.
Director Marcus Romer, Harrogate Theatre’s associate producer, had planned to have the Sex Pistols’ 1977 anthem God Save The Queen seeping through the walls from Abigail’s punk and booze-fuelled party next door, but the events of last Thursday afternoon saw a respectful change to Anarchy In The UK.
Romer has form for Abigail’s Party, having steered York Theatre Royal’s 2005 repertory production. Now the spirit of rep theatre is being repeated in a third such autumn season at Harrogate, the cast piggy-backing from one play to the next, rehearsing Abigail’s Party for a week, and now rehearsing Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight by day and staging Leigh’s suburban comedy of awkward social-climbing manners by night.
The same process will follow next week, when Paul Hawkyard, Robin Simpson and Janine Mellor will knock John Godber’s Men Of The World into shape in the daytime rehearsal room under Amy Burns Walker’s direction before Harrogate-born Faye Weerasinghe, Simpson, Harrogate pantomime regular Katy Dean, Mellor and Ian Kirkby form co-producer Ben Roddy’s cast each night for Gaslight.
In rep tradition, there is a familiarity to the cast, not only Dean, but also Mellor from the 2019 HT Rep season’s On The Piste and Deathtrap and her dual roles as Dandini and a Snugly Sister in last winter’s Cinderella, while rising star Weerasinghe played the lead in Full English at Harrogate Theatre in June.
York audiences, meanwhile, will need no introduction to Hawkyard and Simpson, whether from Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre or their Mardy and Manky double act in Cinderella at the Theatre Royal last winter. Captain Hook and Mrs Darling await them in All New Adventures Of Peter Pan this winter.
Now put them all together in surely one of the most destructive yet indestructible of English comedies. Your reviewer is yet to see a duff production and Romer’s return to Leigh is another winner.
It is Katy Dean’s turn to behave appallingly in the Alison Stedman-patented lead role of gauche Beverly, dark haired this time rather than bottle-blonde but still over-dressed for cheese and pineapple-stick nibbles in her fuchsia party dress.
Embroiled in a stultifying game of one-upmanship with dyspeptic, workaholic property-agent husband Laurence (Simpson), their latest playground for point-scoring is a soiree for their new neighbours, taciturn ex-professional footballer Tony (Hawkyard) and nervous nurse Angela (Weerasinghe) in their oh-so Seventies’ North London living room.
Joining them with reluctance written all over her face is Sue (Mellor), banished from her 15-year-old daughter’s party, fretful that it will get out of hand. as it inevitably does.
Leigh depicts a Britain heading towards the acquisitive Thatcherite era of material greed. Already the status-symbol fibre-optic lamps, drinks cabinet and brown sofas are in place in Geoff Gilder’s design.
Tensions rise, tempers flare, the polite veneer gradually erodes under the influence as Dean’s monstrous Beverly has her sport at the hands of her guests and mocked husband amid the surfeit of gin top-ups and chain-smoked “little cigarettes”, with her recourse to Donna Summer, Demis Roussos and Elvis records failing to break the awkwardness.
For all her restless noise and surface swagger, the tactless and tasteless Beverly is lonely behind the perma-cigarette haze, frustrated by the absence of bedroom action, empty too, for all her superficial possessions and on-trend kitchen gadgets. Full of aspiration yet desperation.
Simpson’s Laurence is sullen and sunken in Beverly’s loud, crushing shadow, stewing at his shallow wife’s dismissal of his tentative, self-improving interest in art.
New to your reviewer, wide-eyed Weerasinghe is outstanding as the effusive, chatterbox nurse Angela, talking ever looser as the gin kicks in, then dancing as out of time as a stopped clock.
Hawkyard, meanwhile, maximises minimum words as the humourless Tony, whose imposing demeanour goes from monosyllabic indifference to not-funny wound-up menace to sudden snapping point.
Mellor’s Sue is Leigh’s quiet voice of excruciating middle-class discomfort, stuck in the middle yet desperate to be elsewhere, having to put up with Beverly’s insensitive inquisition about her marriage breakdown and Angela’s well-meant over-fussing.
Very 1977 and yet full of English characteristics that have not changed, and probably never will, Leigh’s writing is as sharp as a punk safety pin, his contempt unconfined for values so anathema to him, his humour merciless and deeply wounding.
Romer squeezes Leigh’s sour lemon to the max, knowing just how far to go for the juiciest bitter comedy when Beverly keeps going too far. One hell of a party, one hell of a play, one hell of a knockout production.