Let’s party!

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 30.11.2018

Last time Douglas Rintoul brought a play to the Grand Théâtre it was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which depicts 17th-century witch-hunts but clearly refers to early 1950s America and McCarthyism. This time he has directed a classic of another type, namely Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, a 1977 play that has long reached cult status.

In fact, throughout his career as a film maker, Leigh, whose Peterloo has just come out in UK cinemas, has had a parallel life in theatre. He has written and directed over twenty stage plays so far and has developed a unique way of working. Both his films and his plays do not start with the written word, i.e. a script or a playtext, but with themes and ideas that are to be investigated. Each actor chooses a person they know personally, then builds a back story for their character before they all come together to develop the dramatic action in improvised situations under Leigh’s direction.

Abigail’s Party remains the latter’s most famous play to date, thanks largely to the 1977 BBC filmed version which is available on DVD. Rumour has it that fans re-enact the action on stage the way others do for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. You dress the part and get into character.

At the Grand Théâtre Rintoul’s flawless production literally made the 1970s come alive. The clothes and the hairstyles – for both women and men – were gloriously spot-on. The greatest compliment one can pay the five actors is to say that they actually made you forget the faces of the original production. Melanie Gutteridge was a brilliant Beverly, the hostess from hell who bullies her guests into having yet another drink or cigarette. Any offer of crisps or peanuts becomes a threat that no one dares refuse. As a result, one of the guests is sick, whereas everyone else gets plastered in no time at all. Laurence, Beverly’s husband, a very convincing Christopher Staines, tries to intervene but to no avail. His desperate attempts at keeping the conversation going are doomed to fail since no one else seems interested in Van Gogh or Shakespeare. Besides, Laurence’s knowledge of high art is rather patchy and straight out of a textbook.

The new neighbours Beverly has invited to this drinks party are equally mismatched. Tony (Liam Bergin), a taciturn ex-footballer, sits there like a stone statue while Angela (Amy Downham), his rather naïve wife, is chattering away. Once she starts revealing more and more embarrassing details about their marriage, Tony’s one-word answers metamorphose into full-frontal attacks.

Trapped in the middle of all this marital sniping is Susan (Susie Emmett), a twitchy middle-class divorcée whose prim clothes and cut-glass accent contrast with everyone else’s. She may be everyone’s social superior but is as unhappy as they are. Her body language left you in no doubt: the moment Susan sat down on Beverly’s leather sofa, she regretted accepting the invitation, yet was too polite to escape.

Social climbing, suburbia, consumerism, package holidays… Leigh is taking the temperature of the 1970s, making sure we understand that these people are not caricatures or grotesque failures. The play can be called a comedy of bad manners, but underneath the veneer there is a deep vulnerability. The audience is laughing at Beverly’s social pretensions and her outrageous flirting, but you also sense her pain and isolation.

In class-obsessed Britain, just as in lovely Luxembourg, where you shop and what car you drive have long been barometers of social standing, as are the music you listen to and the clothes you wear. In the 1970s it was olives vs pilchard curry, sherry vs Bacardi-and-Coke and Beethoven vs Demis Roussos.

As Laurence says, life is a fight. This was brought home to us unmistakably by the final tableau of perfect chaos – if there can ever actually be such a thing.

Abigail’s Party was at GTL on November 27, 28 and 29

Janine Goedert
© 2023 d’Lëtzebuerger Land