Alison Croggon reviews the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party
I don’t usually read programs before a show, as I prefer to keep myself in the delicious suspension of blank anticipation; but for once the MTC’s program note was interesting. It consisted of an essay by Mike Leigh about how his play, Abigail’s Party, was first written and produced.
Abigail’s Party was created over 10 weeks in 1977. Leigh was already moving away from theatre towards film, taking with him the techniques of actor-centred rehearsals in which a script is improvised. It was, Leigh says, never intended to be anything more than a light comedy that would disappear, like most plays, the moment it closed.
Through a combination of zeigeist, timing and luck the play took off, selling out its Hampstead Theatre premiere season and finally reaching an audience of 16 million people when the tv adaptation was broadcast on BBC1. 40 years later productions still occur across the world. Including Melbourne. “If it works,” says Leigh, “it does so precisely because you, the audience, experience [the characters] in a real, three dimensional way.”
I lifted my eyes to Anna Cordingley’s set. The entire stage is filled by a huge design reminiscent of a 1970s television quiz show. The central playing space is claustrophobically small, covered floor-to-ceiling with orange shagpile carpet. Niches are stacked either side of the central playing area, like those boxes where contestants make quips or demonstrate the beautiful prizes. Clearly Stephen Nicolazzo’s production was having no truck with any of Leigh’s social realist naturalism. No sir!
It’s fair to say a sense of foreboding settled in my heart, which intensified into baffled disbelief as the play unrolled. Afterwards, I found myself speculating what series of decisions had led to such an astonishingly wrong-headed production. A glittery sheen of bling about a molecule thick doesn’t serve to conceal the hollowness of its ideas.
As far as I can see (admittedly it’s not very far) the idea seemed to be to take Leigh’s bleak satire of lower middle class aspirations and to turn it into a theatrical version of the twitter feed 70s Dinner Party, which pokes fun at the horrific recipes that adorned trendy tables four decades ago – rococo cocktail sausages, eggs in aspic, stuffed cabbages – via the queer theatre of indie theatre makers, The Little Ones.
The Little Ones emerged a few years ago, surfing on the wave lifted by Declan Greene and Ash Flanders’ company Sisters Grimm, whose queer theatre hit mainstream stages in a flurry of darkly colourful anarchy. The Little Ones struck me from the beginning as a safer, more conservative version of queer theatre: where Sisters Grimm attacked racism and colonialism in shows like Summertime in the Garden of Eden or The Sovereign Wife, The Little Ones mostly settled for glitter and “gender bending”.
Their production of Dangerous Liaisons for the MTC Neon Festival, for instance, simply swapped genders in its casting as if this in itself, without the scaffolding of thought that surrounds the performance of gender or other social relations, was an insightful comment on power or sexuality. The result, as I remarked at the time, is paradoxically a theatre that confirms heteronormativity, rather than challenges it.
I don’t know what anybody’s intentions were with Abigail’s Party, aside from the notion that camping up Leigh’s script would be hilarious. You can watch the original television adaptation in full on YouTube, and it remains unclear to me why it was chosen in the first place. It emerges from the stifling class anxieties of Britain in the 1970s, the same period that launched Margaret Thatcher. It was also a rich time for British writing: postwar artists such as Trevor Griffiths, Joan Littlewood and Caryl Churchill were writing scorchingly political works. Next to Griffiths’ Comedians or Churchill’s Cloud Nine, Abigail’s Party seems jejune: a bit like an old David Williamson play, only well-written.
The entire action takes place in the lounge room, where the upwardly-mobile Beverly (Pip Edwards) is anxiously holding a drinks party with her husband Laurence (Daniel Frederiksen), a real estate agent. Beverly has invited her working class neighbours: Tony (Benjamin Rigby) and Angela (Zoe Boesen), respectively a computer programmer and a nurse. The final guest is the middle class divorcee Sue (Katherine Tonkin), who has been evicted from her house by her 15-year-old daughter Abigail so she can hold a wild party.
The evening lurches from glum to worse to disaster through a series of wincingly passive aggressive conversations, with the muffled music of Abigail’s party off stage suggesting that the pretensions and anxieties of these couples are about to be blown apart by the anarchy of the young.
The humour, and the play’s humanity, depends a lot on the recognition of detail: Laurence’s sad demonstrations of his cultural knowledge with Readers Digest versions of Shakespeare or Charles Dickens, Beverly’s inapt refrigeration of the Beaujolais or her social anxiety, epitomised by her oppressive circulation of snacks and alcohol. But what drives the characters is the constant, and very specific, classist microaggressions.
I’m not sure any of these details translate satisfactorily into contemporary Australia, where class functions very differently from 1970s Britain, however conditioned we are by BBC comedies. But it’s hard to tell, because in this histrionic production these details don’t read at all: they kind of randomly emerge without any subtext to give them meaning. It’s a bad sign when the conversation between the women takes a dark turn towards a discussion of domestic violence, and the audience reads it as a joke.
What we get instead of detail is coarse gestures towards ‘70s nostalgia – the aforementioned orange carpet or a glittery blue pantsuit – although this kind of extravagance is foreign to these deeply conventional characters. They are more Hull than London’s Kings Cross, Phillip Larkin rather than Kenny Everett. The actors – especially the men, who don’t say much at all – are suffocated by the set: there is literally no room to move. The naturalistic details written into the script’s actions – answering the door, chatting around the coffee table – become awkward when there’s no door or coffee table or chairs. It’s hard to think of a less promising text for this kind of treatment.
The performances themselves are for the most part cartoons: a subtext of flirtation between Beverly and Tony, for instance, turns into a grotesque parody of seduction. What gets lost in this mess of exaggerated gesture is precisely the quality that Leigh says makes the play work: experiencing the characters “in a real, three dimensional way”. We are invited to sneer at them, but not to empathise. And without that empathy, this text is very thin indeed. How anybody thought this production a good idea, from the concept up, beats me.
Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh, directed by Stephen Nicolazzo. Design by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Katie Sfetkidis, costumes by Eugyeene Teh, composition and sound design by Daniel Nixon. With Zoe Boesen, Pip Edwards, Daniel Frederiksen, Benjamin Rigby and Katherine Tonkin. Southbank Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until April 21. Bookings.