Abigail’s Party by the Lichfield Players
The Garrick Studio Theatre Tuesday 18 January 2022
By Jono Oates
Today we know Alison Steadman as one of the stars of the very popular Gavin and Stacey playing ditzy, loveable Pamela Shipman, but in 1977 she played a character that defined her career and in a role that is still widely remembered today – the excruciating hostess Beverly in the iconic Abigail’s Party.
The Lichfield Players started their 2022 season with their production of this Mike Leigh play, performed on television as part of the regular Play for Today series on BBC1 during the 1970s. With only three channels this was a very popular series and Abigail’s Party was very much the stand-out play, mainly due to Steadman’s charismatic, and very funny, portrayal of Beverly.
The play is set fairly and squarely in 1977, all vibrant colours, outlandish oversized clothes, lava lamps and cheese and pineapple on sticks. Beverly is a snobbish, middle class but oh-so-desperately keen to be upper class, housewife married to the overworked and overtired Laurence and she invites their new neighbours, the pleasant and undemanding Angela and her husband, the strong-but-silent non-communicative Tony, round to her house to welcome them to the neighbourhood. She also invites another neighbour, Sue, to join them as Sue’s teenage daughter, the eponymous Abigail, is holding a party with her young, and boisterous, friends in her own home.
The evening starts off relatively well, with pleasantries exchanged and small talk becomes the order of the day. However, as the drink flows, and inhibitions are lifted, the simmering tensions between the two couples start to rise to the surface, with Sue very much caught in the cross-fire, and at the same time the noise from Abigail’s party next door starts to increase in decibels.
Mike Leigh is one of the best playwriters, screenwriters and film directors in the country and, at the time of the play being written, was Alison Steadman’s husband. His scripts are always very witty, sharp, acerbic, and at times, brutally honest. Abigail’s Party is a finely-drawn illustration of middle-class suburbia in the Home Counties of the 1970s and his observational style of drawing attention to the absurdities of the main characters is both very funny and very pointed.
The play is a five-hander, as young Abigail is never seen, with Sarah Stanley playing Beverly, Stefan Dufaye as her long-suffering husband Laurence, Robin Lewitt as Tony, Anshu Sadchev as Angela and Maureen George as Sue. This is a very experienced cast and it shows, finding their feet very easily on the first performance of a five-night run and keeping the Garrick audience happy and very amused throughout. The role of Beverly is a very hard one to take on as an actor as Steadman’s version was so acknowledged, especially at the time, but Sarah definitely takes up the challenge and has some fantastic lines. As we all know timing is everything in any comedic role and there are some memorable quotes and phrases that are delivered with perfect timing. If you have not seen the play before you will soon recognise some of Beverley’s favourite words that are repeated several times and it’s here that that Sarah’s comedic timing comes to its own.
Robin Lewitt is suitably menacing as the brooding Tony, whose rugged good looks certainly attract the attention of Beverly, and Stefan Dufaye shows all the pent-up emotion and frustrations of trying to placate his very demanding, flighty, wife. Maureen George is always a great watch and is fabulous as the piggy-in-the-middle neighbour Sue, who definitely steals a few scenes with her ‘one over the eight’ drinking session. I’ve seen these cast members many times before but Anshu Sadchev was new to me, and she was delightful as the slightly mousey Angela, who is clearly unappreciated by her husband, and she has some clever, sharp dialogue with Beverley who clearly views her as a social inferior. Her ‘slow’ dance with a highly bemused Laurence, as the couples switch partners for a smooch, is very funny, earning her a round of applause, and it will definitely make all of the dad-dancers in the audience look like Anton Du Beke!
Direction by Nigel Lowe is first rate, with fine performances from all the cast and the Producer is Kathy Bryers. The set design, by Nigel Lowe and Andrew Bodger, is very evocative of the flamboyant, and garish, 1970s and the lady in the row in front of me whispered ‘we had that orange wallpaper in our front room…’ to her neighbour! The background music is a soundtrack of the 70s, with the cool of Beverly’s favourite Jose Feliciano’s guitar strings, being counter-punched by the angst-ridden bile of the Sex Pistols hammering through the wall from Abigail’s party.
The Players’ version of Abigail’s Party is great fun, it is quick-paced and there are witty one-liners, some laugh out loud scenes, a bit of slapstick, some withering put-downs and an ending that is both dramatic and surprising. I’m sure that the lovely Alison Steadman would approve and I’m also sure that Beverly would describe it as…’Great’…
Abigail’s Party by the Lichfield Players runs at the Lichfield Garrick Studio Theatre from Wednesday 19 January to Saturday 22 January, curtain up at 7.45pm with a 2.45pm matinee performance on Saturday. Ticket prices start at £15.00. Wearing of masks is recommended when in the theatre.
Tickets are available by visiting the Box Office at Castle Dyke (limited opening times, please see the Garrick website), by ringing 01543 412121 or by booking online at: