By Mike Leigh
Directed by Samuel Snedden
Presented by Vibracorp Productions
Basement Theatre, Auckland | September 10-21
“Want a drink?” That line drives so much of the action of Vibracorp’s flawless production of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. A seminal text in British theatre, with a bizarrely popular televised version of it, Abigail’s Party is the “most painful 100 minutes in British comedy.” It’s probably some of the best minutes in British comedy.
The titular Abigail is an off-screen character, a teenage daughter having a party of her own down the road. The party that we focus on is a different one in the same complex, although the punk rock music from Abigail’s party does seep through. This party is Beverly’s (Andi Crown) party, where she and her husband Laurence (Simon Vincent) have invited a couple who have just moved in, Angela (Sophie Roberts) and Tony (Nic Sampson), and Abigail’s mother Susan (Jacque Drew) to have a few drinks. What unfolds is a good two hours of middle-class dressing down, dressing-up, veiled insults, and borderline adulterous flirtations.
This is flat-out the funniest thing I’ve seen all year, and that’s not a low bar to clear. Not only is Leigh’s script a perfect dissection of these kinds of parties—awkward drinks where nobody really wants to be there and everybody stays about three drinks after they should’ve left—but it’s practically a vivisection of the middle class. Some of the characters are striving to be something higher, or pretending that they are (namely, Beverly and Laurence), but others are perfectly happy (or at least somewhat content) to be where they are, like Angela and Tony. And in the case of Susan, we get an example of someone in the middle class at the tail end of realising their life might not have been as well-lived as they would have liked. And beyond all this? It’s hilarious. A lot of this is in the script, and it’s amazing that Leigh’s play, aside from being relevant, is still funny almost half a century later. But the cast drive the bulk of these laughs.
As well as being the funniest thing all year, I probably won’t see a stronger ensemble. Not only is each cast member fantastic; they are such a tight-knit unit that you feel safe in their hands, even as the play changes tone sharply and moves into darker, and more awkward, territory. Everyone is entirely in sync with each other and it’s divine to watch.
As the husbands, Simon Vincent and Nic Sampson have less to do than the women, but they play their roles superbly. Sampson has to do a lot with by far the least amount of words in the script, and yet we immediately understand that Tony really doesn’t want to be here, and that he really doesn’t want to be here with his wife. When Tony erupts, Sampson makes it volcanic and it’s legitimately scary when he lashes out at not only his wife, but also everyone else in the room. He shades these aspects into Tony’s character early on, so when it comes it’s not a surprise, but a depressingly inevitability. On the other hand, Vincent’s Laurence has the least time on stage and his character has the least development, but he nails a late-breaking monologue that really sums up the play—“most people just drift through life”—and his delivery speaks volumes of not only the play but those watching it.
As Susan, Jacque Drew is the dark centre of the play. Along with Tony, this character doesn’t want to be there. Drew makes Susan’s unwilling compliance at once touching and very funny, so much so that the first act showstopper is an undeniable highpoint. Her fluttery, Sandy Dennis-esque delivery is a perfect fit for the character; she’s in a constant state of terror of what has happened in her life, and what might happen. Without becoming a symbol, Drew marks Susan as a potential future for the other four characters and anchors the play in a suitably emotional place.
However, it must be said that the two highlights of the play are Andi Crown as Beverly and Sophie Roberts as Angela. Roberts is almost unrecognisable as the mousy, awkward Angela, clothed in an impossibly hideous dress with glasses half the size of her face. She’s an ace with the lines that Leigh gives her, especially her attempts at conversation that nobody ever responds to, but she also reaps much comedy from the space in between what she says, like grasping for some chips behind Beverly’s back or not knowing where to put a toothpick that she’s eaten from. Like everyone else, she also finds the sad core of her character: her glances to Tony in the second act reveal a lifetime of insecurity even more so than a depressingly funny story about lying about playing piano a few years ago. In the eleventh hour, when she finds some steel in Angela, it’s breathtaking. She makes what could’ve been a wash of a role into something luminous and full-bodied. Her Angela beams as brightly as Beverly.
And speaking of Beverly, Andi Crown’s work in this role is genius. It is undoubtedly the showiest role in the play, with a flowing orange costume that seems to have come straight out of a time machine, and yet Crown’s work is not showy at all. She nails her Devon accent perfectly, and every time the harshness of that accent comes out, it’s hilarious, as if the character is forgetting the hide the accent. Beverly develops the most out of any character throughout the piece, from bored housewife to openly resentful housewife, to flirting adulterer, to remorseful and loving woman, and Crown tracks all of these without missing a beat. From flicking her dress out when she sits down to her constant repetitions of “Want a drink?”, it’s a note-perfect performance and were the other members of the cast not as impressive, it’d be worth seeing the show for her alone. You might not see a better performance, comic or otherwise, this year.
The strength of the cast is obviously credited to them, but also to director Sam Snedden’s keen eye for detail. Not one chance for comedy is passed up, from the first laugh courtesy of a fibrelight to an eleventh hour cramp, and no matter who you’re looking at, there’s something going on and something going on beneath the surface. With a play that is this funny, critical, and intelligent, that eye for detail is necessary, and Snedden provides it and exceeds it.
The design aspects of the play are well-appointed and support the cast well. The set and costumes are excellent. I felt like I was stepping into not only my mother’s time period but my grandmother’s period, with the beige leather suite and kitschy wooden furniture, not to mention the costumes. Crown’s dress, an orange flowing kaftan that is both flattering and exactly what that character would think is flattering, makes her look like Joan Collins, and you feel that’s exactly what that character is going for. According to the programme, a lot of the set is up for purchase, and I hope the same is true of the costumes! The lighting and sound is minimalist yet effective, especially the constant boom of Abigail’s party sounding like it’s from the other room. It’s a reminder that there’s a world outside this party we’re watching, and it’s probably better or at the very least less awkward.
At the end of the day, you need to see Abigail’s Party. The television version frankly doesn’t hold up, and this is a play that really breathes and excels in live performance. It’s the best comedy I’ve seen this year, and some of the best theatre I’ve seen. The text captures the horror of socialising, as does this production, but the cast, direction, and design inject new life into it. If you’re in Auckland, you might not get a chance to see this play again, and you definitely won’t see a version of it that is this good. You will regret it if you don’t.