Acclaimed British writer/director Mike Leigh’s notable 1977 play Abigail’s Party has never graced a Melbourne Theatre Company stage. Forty years down the track, it seems to have taken the MTC’s mainstage debut of director Stephen Nicolazzo to bring this thoroughly British domestic drama to our attention.
Famous for the original production having been so successful that it was recorded by the BBC as a Play for Today and transmitted three times over two years – something unheard of at the time – with the third showing even being seen by 16 million viewers thanks to an ITV strike reducing the options available that stormy evening. To say it is beloved by those who lived through 70s Britain would be an understatement, and as an observation on the ambitions and styles of the newly emerging middle class of the time it’s a perfect time capsule.
Beverley Moss (Pip Edwards) has invited her new neighbours Angela (Zoe Boesen) and Tony Cooper (Benjamin Rigby) over for drinks, along with her divorced neighbour Sue (Katherine Tonkin) whose fifteen year-old daughter, the unseen Abigail, is having her first teenage house party that same evening. Beverley is desperate to impress with her alcoholic largess, using its lubricating powers to loosen up her neighbours and cement her status a hostess with impeccable taste, so the lack of enthusiasm from her highly-strung husband Lawrence (Daniel Frederiksen) is a metaphorical scratch in her Demis Roussos record.
Leigh developed the script through improvisations with his cast, and the character of Beverley, as played by his wife Alison Steadman, established her reputation for having a comic sensibility of the highest order. Knowing this, Pip Edwards has big shoes to fill taking on the role of Beverley, something she seemingly does with ease. Equal parts lascivious and desperate, her take on the role is exquisitely self-obsessed and holds court fabulously over the evening until it reaches its abrupt conclusion.
Angela is quietly ditzy, and unlike Beverley, interested mostly in the mundane and simple things in life. Zoe Boesen makes her charmingly dim, almost unaware of the simplicity of her conversation. As a nurse, she has a natural instinct to care, which has an opportunity to come to the fore throughout the evening; nevertheless she is kept dependent on her husband Tony, a former pro footballer, by him not allowing her to gain her driver’s license.
Sue is clearly the black sheep of the group, more mature in taste and uninterested in licentious behaviour, she’s just looking for somewhere to escape from her daughter’s party and Katherine Tonkin makes her wonderfully awkward. Unable to say no, Sue is easily walked over by Beverley and Tonkin keeps this woman’s bubbling desire to be elsewhere, constantly just under the surface. When she dances with Lawrence, at Beverley’s insistence, there is a sense between Tonkin and Frederiksen, that despite Lawrence’s neurotic behaviour and insistence upon the appreciation of higher culture that perhaps these two would be better suited to one another. Leigh’s script is full of unresolved possibility.
Director, Stephen Nicolazzo has certainly enjoyed himself making fun of all things 1970’s and amplifying the sad delusions of cultural sophistication that his protagonists display. However, it feels like his positioning of mockery upon his subjects shows an unequal level of love for them, riding roughshod over the details in an effort to get a bigger laugh. More disturbingly though, Nicolazzo seems to lack an appreciation for ensuring the scene matches the script and has allowed his designers to readily ignore scripted dialogue. In fact, it feels like costume designer Eugyeene Teh didn’t even read the script, causing characters to refer to non-existent outfit details, and leaving Angela in particular looking anachronistic with her decidedly edgy hair do, oddly nurse-like white cheongsam and outrageous tangerine-coloured fur coat that blends in completely with the orange shag pile of the set. The lack of cohesion is dispiriting.
Anna Cordingley’s set design has stunning impact upon arrival to the theatre, but in practice is wildly impractical. Reminiscent of the set of 70s sketch show Laugh-In, three ‘windows’ expose settings that individually get fleeting use, little more than once each, while the main setting of Beverley and Lawrence’s sitting room is confined to the central third of the stage. Focused on a wonderfully 70’s carpet-covered ‘conversation pit’, it’s a classic case of form over function, for on the massive Sumner Theatre stage somehow character sightlines are regularly blocked. It seems ridiculous that a stage this big should have its playing space so regularly confined to a downstage centre, 6ft x 3ft space.
Ultimately, when Mike Leigh’s stunningly inconsequential story comes to an end there’s an elephant in the room, being the question of why this play at this time was considered worthy of a space in the 2018 MTC program. As an observation of 1970s middle class Britain it’s great, as a narrative it’s so-so (this isn’t the most interesting party conversation to listen in on), and as a reference to 21st Century Australian audiences it seems completely irrelevant. If the MTC hadn’t produced Don’s Party quite so recently, that would seem the far more obvious choice for a reflection on the past, that would at least have some cultural relevance.