Theatre Review – ‘Abigail’s Party’

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LUTG’s final production this academic year, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party (1977), propelled me back to my nine year old life; wandering into my living room and finding myself surrounded by my Mother’s repugnant, overbearing and oversmiling friends. If you have the luck of avoiding the bearing of thoroughly awkward situations, then Abigail’s Party is the most extensive introduction.

The Gregson auditorium, with its wooden floor, stairs and radiators, already has the structure and baubles of a warm and intimate household. With this in place, stage manager Natasha Farnworth (who you may remember as Sybil in Dorian Gray), with assistance from Carly Schult, made tender and succulent mincemeat of the space with un-wavered attention to detail – even the cigarette packets had their government health warnings covered up for 70s authenticity. There were only two flaws to be picked at in the staging. A Van Gogh painting rests on a shelf when it should hang on a wall, although permission to drill the Gregson Centre’s wall would be a big ask. Secondly, a relatively slim book is described by Laurence (Matthew Bosley) as “Dickens – The Complete Works”, although permission to have Matthew Bosley break both his arms trying to carry a book containing all of Dickens’ long-winded tripe is an even bigger ask. Books, paintings, sofas, a fine vinyl player and a fluffy rug amongst other trash are so neatly organized that even the audience feels like an effort has been made to welcome them into the humble Moss home.

The neatness lulls the audience into a false sense of comfort. We soon get to listen to Beverly Moss, attired in a monstrously over-perfected blue ensemble which might lead you to mistake her for an aquarium. Katherine Tate delivers her lines with such selfish, disingenuous concern for those around her that she makes Hyacinth Bucket and Sybil Fawlty look like Carol Ann Duffy. Every line is forced through, along a wave of breathy vowel elongation and shrillness (“oooooh that’s niiiiiiice isn’t iiiiiiit?”). She handled her cigarettes and movements with dexterity and majesty, and Tate’s nerve-stunningly accurate performance ensured that the venom which slowly seeps through the cracks in her smile was always visible.

Director Louise Turner was evidently keen to exploit the authenticity of the relationships between the characters. Much truth to the form, since the play and its backstories were conceived through a series of workshops and improvisations partaken by the original cast, led by Mike Leigh.

Ange (Rachael Hunt) is as meek as a newborn lamb when faced with Beverly, but she too becomes unpleasant and callous when she spots an opening and directs the teasing towards her husband Tony (Angus Bowron) and Sue (Lowri Jones), their neighbour. Angus Bowron, in his first acting role with LUTG (though you wouldn’t think so to watch him), is seething and dependable throughout, and his brilliant scowl and readiness to explode fully convinced me that he and Ange would no doubt engage in a blazing row when they got home. What is perhaps most commendable about Tate, Bowron and Hunt is their ability to pace the progression of their demeanours (and drunkenness) well enough to pinpoint the moments where their social masks slowly slip away.

Sue, sweetly portrayed by the charming Lowri Jones, showed us how unenviable the task of trying to relate to such abrasive personalities is. Her uneasy presence, the emergence of the care she has for her daughter (the eponymous yet unseen Abigail) and her cute Welsh accent alienates her from her grating surroundings, painting her almost as the hero of the play.

I deliver strong, supportive props to whoever furnished the cast with their costumes. Beverly’s blue monstrosity accentuated her brashness, Ange’s slightly imperfect getup highlighted her efforts to appear more cultured than she is, Sue’s prim and dark ensemble was alienating, and Tony’s casual leather jacket cemented just how out of place and uncomfortable he is.

Despite being a naturalistic piece, Matthew Bosley (who you may remember as Billy in Cuckoo’s Nest and Faulkland in The Rivals) and his usual relentless tirade of bravado and physicality didn’t once detract from said naturalism; Laurence is constantly trying to upstage his wife and subtly demean those who lack his artistic taste, so his cocky stage presence was justified by his character’s snobbery. This isn’t to say that he traveled an over the top tour-de-force – Bosley was given a character with nuances and minutiae to explore, and explore them he certainly did. His flipping between “customer face” when speaking to clients and “wife face” when speaking to his wife (well, of course) was very funny indeed, but he once again managed to shake off this expectation. Throughout the play, the character was seen to shake, loosen his tie and appear in some discomfort. None of this could have prepared the audience for the sight of him suffering a heart attack and dying on stage, an abrupt tragedy that the entire cast reacted to with sudden seriousness and admirable realism. Versatility was in abundance that night.

I can say with mounds of conviction that Abigail’s Party and Oleanna are the best shows I have seen this year, out of the seven I have reviewed. There was not a flaw to pick, and the entire ensemble offered perfect diction and a clear affinity for the humour; every pause and lack of self-awareness blindingly radiated from all of them.

And that’s it for this year’s Theatre! The Theatre Group have now collapsed in their dressing rooms in a haze of cigarillo smoke and alcohol fumes after a year of excellent performances, but they’ll be back after the Summer break. Next year we can look forwards to the following dramas, which have recently been voted into production.

At the Nuffield Theatre, Matthew Bosley will be directing Georg Buchner’s psychological masterpiece, Woyzeck, which tells the tale of a soldier’s rapid decline in mental stability as he succumbs to guinea pig treatment by a Doctor obsessed with blowing the medical word sky high. Bosley has taken the liberty of altering the text to include sections of interpretive dance, so anyone who wants to dance and dance alone will be welcomed to auditions with wide arms.

At the Duke’s Theatre, Natasha Farnworth will be subjecting a cast of three to Bryony Lavery’s Frozen, a balanced and unsettling exploration of what makes a child sex-offender click, and what keeps a grieving mother from ever being able to move on.

Also at the Duke’s Theatre, the gifted Michael Reffold and Katherine Meyrick plan to show their not unimpressive balls by staging Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, a rare musical piece from LUTG.

And for the Duke’s triple whammy, Josh Coates (director of LUTG’s beautiful production of Road) will impose his artistic vision on Simon Stephen’s Punk Rock, a play accessible to anybody who went to school (ie. everybody).

The best part is that none of these plays have been cast. Auditions will be held at the end of the next undoubtedly outrageous fresher’s week. If you’re a soon to be LU dweller or a seasoned dweller who has never tested their theatrical waters, then for God’s sake sign up, audition and try your inexperienced hand. For despite being amateur, LUTG is a regular churner-outer of acclaimed and admirable drama. Membership is an experience not be be wastefully missed.

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