NORTH WEST ESSEX THEATRE GUILD
Little Waltham Drama Group
Abigail's Party by Mike Leigh
Thursday 15th July 2004
This is a play that I saw years ago and like so many saw Alison Steadman's awesome creation of the awful woman, Beverley and I can still remember so much from that performance. I can describe the set in detail, the other characters too. I think that because the original cast created the parts from improvisation/discussion and developed the script from this, the characters became an extension of themselves. So it is an unenviable task for any drama group to present this play without the audience comparing it to the original, but tonight, we were riveted by the portrayals which, yes had similarities but had a freshness and credibility that was good to see.
FRONT OF HOUSE As ever, the welcome we received was excellent as was our treatment; the FOH staff were effective and efficient, the programme very interesting with little extras that fascinate. I like the phraseology on the frontispiece, the biographical details of Mike Leigh as well as the personal comments from members of the group.
STAGE MANAGEMENT Another composite set with the action pushed far to the sides as is often the case at this venue. There was little visible for the SM to do but clearly the effective running of the evening indicated efficient management.
SET AND PROPS I did enjoy the 60/70s look to the set. I remember having wallpaper with symmetrical toning orange circles as the all-over pattern in my first house so seeing the similar effect but with squares was so reminiscent of that time. Also those large symmetrical floral motifs were so indicative of the period, I really did feel that we were looking back to a scene that was familiar and true to type. The furniture was very good although the reference to the table was rather odd as the table was so far back it was hard to see and the candelabra was rather drab and nondescript. I loved the plastic pineapple, my mother had had one- where did it go? However the piece de resistance has to be the foil- covered grapefruit with cheese and pineapple on sticks- oh how the memories flooded back! The prints were very fitting as indicated in the script, the erotic one that Beverley arrived with was right and the ashtray on a stand and LP/ turntable evoked more reminiscences. I felt that the attention to the detailing of the period was excellent and recaptured the mood of the era.
LIGHTING AND SOUND There was an excellent coverage of bright light throughout and the sound cues which were mainly well chosen music were immaculately timed and of a pleasing intensity.
COSTUME The modern look to the costuming was ideal, Beverley overdressed in comparison to the others, her makeup and jewellery were especially overstated and the low cut dress enhanced her provocative moments. The colour of the ribbon on Angie's dress was wishy- washy which was absolutely right for the lipstick link later in the performance, her dress had a naivety that was again right. Sue looked neat and normal! The men were fine, I liked Tony's black shirt and toning tie, (what an awful pun!)
DIRECTION The pace of the whole performance was fast and furious- this is a very wordy play with few actions bar the incessant drinking! So the flow of words has to galvanise the interest and keep our attention; such was the case on this evening. I liked the quiet start with Beverley setting the evening into motion as she put on the music, this showed us instantly that she was in charge of the whole evening and everyone would go along with her wishes. Her affectations and mannerisms were fitting for this monster of a character as was her clipped intonation. She quickly set the mood and drove the action on. The triteness of the conversation and precision of character was established diligently early on so that Beverley's manipulation was given full rein. The pick up of cues and overlapping dialogue was exceptional and kept the momentum of the play fast and interesting. Each actor established their character quickly and consistently and the development of the different moods and tensions became fascinating to watch. Lawrence was too busy to concentrate fully on his guests to start with but the situation slowly got to him; Ange was in awe of Beverley, gushy and gullible; Tony was bored and kept his distance; Sue was concerned for Abigail but trying to let go- it really is the worst place for a mother to go to when she's so wound up! I do think the combination of characters in this play is superb. The timing of the incessant similarity of conversation was excellent; Tone made me laugh constantly with his sigh and "yeah" replies, Ange irritated with her sweetness and Sue’s efforts to try to get what she wanted but was dictated constantly by Beverley all added to create the humour. I did feel that
Lawrence could have been even more erratic with his moves and exasperations at the start; he is the only real link with reality here and his excessive reactions are needed to build towards the heart attack. The business phone calls needed to show his pushiness and aggression veiled in niceness that compliment Beverley's similar behaviour in the social scene. There were many very effective facial expressions in this first half; with the minimal action needed the actors need to find other outlets and these expressions were utilised splendidly. Beverley especially used her eyes superbly as well as the stiff shouldered bullish walk- how I longed to trip her up! The affected positioning of her arm and hand for so called elegant smoking fitted the character superbly too. I was very impressed with the way the women managed to drink vast quantities so that their glasses were always needing to be refilled on cue; Ange's two-handed approach was very child-like and so fitting for her character. I also loved the way Sue got what Beverley decided -the way Kirste interrupted Sue's requests or just ignored her! The growing tensions between Lawrence and Beverley were very well paced; the olives, the choice of music, the volume at which the music was played are some to mention as of particular good moments and it reached a pleasing, dramatic climax with the knife scene where Beverley's theatricality at this unexpected event was excellent, one could easily sympathise with Lawrence's angry frustrations. The monosyllabic responses by Tone were superbly paced, we knew what he would say but it was still funny when he said it! Ange's growing drunken merriment was well judged and her silly way of dancing encapsulated the daftness in her role. Sue's anguish over the party and then the sickness was equally well portrayed and her return after the sickness absolutely stunning; she certainly did look awful. So, Beverley's appalling reactions and blinkered helpfulness were able to be seen in the worst light possible as the performances around her all so true to the writing and Leigh's expectations.
The change of status after the heart attack was profound and an excellent contrast. Ange showed the true professionalism of a nurse and her attempts to help Lawrence were exact, so the awfulness of Beverley's reactions and pitiful ineptitude showed her in her true light. Her declaration at being "his wife" yet having no understanding or emotion for the truth or needs of this moment, was both funny and tragic. She even knelt down to talk to Lawrence as he died with a cigarette in her hand! The positioning of the cast for the final moment was excellent and left us with a lasting image of the disjointed chaotic result of the events of this evening-how not to have a drinks party! I knew the play well, I knew what was coming but I was riveted with watching the events unfurl. This is due to both the excellence in the writing and the truthfulness in this performance. The play stands the test of time if it is given the right setting, sounds and accuracy in characterisation- these were all very evident here tonight.
~ Beverley. ..Kirste Snellgrove I think it’s incredibly brave to tackle this part as a debut performance and I must congratulate Kirste for creating such a monster. This is a woman that one cannot like but there were many aspects of this performance that I did. I liked her looks, the excessive curly hairstyle, the elegance of the black dress and figure and the stiff shouldered walk. It gave the appearance of huge shoulder pads even in a strappy dress! This made me think of the fashions of Dallas and Dynasty from that era. She was very convincing as she constantly pestered her guests to drink more or smoke and never listened to any answer but just got her own way. She was so arrogant and affected, this was developed well with the jerkiness and rising tones in her intonation which was then contrasted with deep throated sexiness. Towards the final climax Kirste tended to shout at the same pitch for too long which was a shame after all the complexities of her evening's performance. Well done, it was a smashing debut!
Lawrence. ..Mike Lee This was a good performance but it started off too tamely yet reached excellent heights by the end. This character has to establish normality around the monster that he married and who is showing off tonight. His business matters more than the evening at the start of the play and he must be seen to be totally wrapped up in his affairs. Although good, I didn't feel that Mike gave enough of the bluster and energy of this man to begin with. After the visit to the party, his dynamics changed and increasing tensions became prevalent. The duel between himself and his wife grew stronger and although bowing often to her wishes, his strength of character showed. This was especially evident in the dancing where his awkwardness and politeness were outstanding. His unexpected eruption with the knife was particularly startling and effective, his anger and feelings of discomfort very clear from then on. The heart attack was performed meticulously with maximum pain and anguish but minimal drama, so indicative of his character. This was a strong portrayal and deserves praise.
Angela. ...Katie Norris Although this was a debut performance at Little Waltham, I have seen some of Katie's other performances. This was a very fine performance of this gullible young lady who seems to be putty in Beverley's hands yet is so forceful in her own right. Her character worked well with all the fiddling with her ribbon, adulations at her surroundings and shallowness of conversation. One could sense the falsity of the situation with Ange’s constant twitterings. Her giggling was particularly pleasing as was the playing with her vowel lengths for variety. She did lots of silly things which suited the character, the throwing of the cigarette, the drinking, the dancing so that the contrasting strong and urgent tones when she is trying to save Lawrence gave her character truthfulness. This was why Tone married her and stayed with her, not the nonsense that Beverley drew from her. This was a fine, well paced performance and another deserving praise.
Tony... Andy Freeman I shouldn't have favourites but this man makes me roar with laughter, his disinterest at the start is a gem and Andy gave it the exact timing and minimal reactions necessary. How he hates being there and how it showed! The stillness in Andy's performance as he sat stage right was so apt yet we could see how he was being slowly sucked in by Beverley. The obvious tensions between him and Lawrence after visiting the party were clear and understated and his sexy dancing with Beverley was funny but gave thought to the hidden sides of this character. His strength and purpose were given rein at the heart attack and along with Ange one could see and relate to the unity between these two. It was also clear how isolated Beverley was in contrast to the togetherness of Ange and Tony. Andy's concentration in this role was splendid, he doesn't say much but his presence was very powerful.
Susan.. .Jacky Pitwood This is a hard part, Sue seems drab and ordinary in comparison to the others but Jacky's performance was far from ordinary. Her concern for her daughter, her gentleness and politeness were charming, her feelings for her ex husband strong and full of feeling and although she tried to refuse Beverley's excesses, she took what was thrust on her with grace and calm. Her growing consternation at the developments at the party were focussed well and her growing illness most effective. This was where I felt her performance reached superb heights with her sickness and chagrin both showing superbly. The image of her misery was exquisite and conjured many emotions for the audience whom I'm sure could empathise with her plight- I certainly could- motherhood has difficult times!
This was another fine evening's entertainment from a fine group who value quality drama.
Tricia S.
Tricia Stephens. July 2004