Sumner Theatre
March 22, 2018

Abigail’s Party is a mainstay of theatre in its homeland – one might call it the UK’s Don’s Party – but it’s taken 40 years to make its way into an MTC season. Not a moment too soon, as Mike Leigh’s very 1970s yet timeless social satire is a glorious trainwreck one can’t look away from. Directed by Stephen Nicolazzo, who makes his mainstage debut, this production does it justice with a pitch-perfect cast and a set that accentuates the awkwardness of it all.

Zoe Boesen, Katherine Tonkin and Pip Edwards in MTC’s Abigail’s Party. All photos supplied 

Abigail’s Party is actually about the soirée next door, hosted by a working class couple very much on the rise. Laurence, who grasps at high culture such as Shakespeare and Van Gogh, is working himself to death in real estate. His wife, Beverly, has no taste beyond what she thinks is fashionable, spending his money on mod cons and clothes.

Their guests include new neighbours Angela and Tony, who are just starting their climb up the ladder into middle class consumption. He’s a handsome ex-footballer with little to say. She seems witless, but shows her worth as a nurse during the course of the night. Rounding out the gathering is Sue, a polite, educated divorcee who has lived in the neighbourhood for years. She is clearly uncomfortable with the vacuous conversation and everything her passive-aggressive hostess insists she wants, including dangerous amounts of alcohol.

Sue is the mother of 15-year-old Abigail, whose party bleeds through proceedings musically, and particularly through the adults’ conversation. While youthful good times seem to be flowing freely over there, they are mired in grown-up sexual frustration, consumerist angst and class discomfort. The tragi-comic script delivers some of the most bland dialogue uttered in the theatre – there’s not a single zinger or profound quote – but it’s a thin veil over a dark social subtext. For example, Beverly and Angela reveal their insecurity by incessantly capping their comments with demands for affirmation: “Know what I mean?”, “Isn’t that right?”, and the like.

Zoe Boesen and Benjamin Rigby

Pip Edwards is mesmerising as Beverly, in part because of her very eye-catching shimmering blue jumpsuit, in which she increasingly gyrates seductively. Even more compelling is the way she imbues her words and gestures with a bully’s blind force and insecurity. As Laurence, Daniel Frederiksen is an excellent foil for her excess, snapping out of a constant quiet frustration with flashes of rage or earnest yearning for the better things in life. Tony, the object of Beverly’s predatory seduction, is played by Benjamin Rigby. He gives substance to his character’s propensity to lounge about and give monosyllabic responses. As his wife Angela, Zoe Boesen is a bundle of nervous vacuousness, yet also believable when a nurse’s calm is required. Katherine Tonkin exudes polite discomfort, but it’s never excessive. Everyone nails their accents, no doubt thanks to voice and dialect coach Geraldine Cook-Dafner.

The fact that every character is uncomfortable is accentuated by Anna Cordingley’s outrageously orange set of 70s design. The shagpile carpet is so thick that everyone risks tripping over, and the steps of the sunken lounge so steep that unnaturally huge steps are required to enjoy its comforts. The fact that everything is orange, right down to the plates for snacks such as cheese-and-pineapple sticks, underscores the hosts’ anxiety and lack of imagination. Significantly though, rather than go for outright comic hideousness, there’s a glimmer of taste in the room’s cohesive design.

Katherine Tonkin and Zoe Boesen

In the frame around this boxy central arrangement are little cameo sets for silent vignettes: glimpses of the garage, toilet and Beverly’s boudoir. Nicolazzo keeps everyone but Rigby’s Tony on the move, underlining the nervous tension. The way the cast pour drinks with increasing abandon is a hoot.

Like Cordingley’s set, Eugyeene Teh’s costumes are just the right side of restraint. The temptation must have been to go for lurid clothes that mocked the characters as much as the era that taste forgot, but even that stunning blue jumpsuit has a degree of sophistication. Tony’s jumpsuit could have been a hideous pale blue or tan, for example, but Teh has instead opted for snappy white. (Why did he make the ribbon in Angela’s dress black though, when the dialogue pointedly describes it as pink?) Katie Sfetkidis’ lighting includes a telling reveal of Beverly spotlit in darkness, and Daniel Nixon’s sound is a neat interplay between the neighbouring parties’ music, from Demis Roussos to the Ramones.

Abigail’s Party is a compelling snapshot of personal and social anxiety in 1970s England, but its characters are so distinctive, so identifiable (I suspect there’s a little Beverly, Laurence, Angela, Tony or Sue in us all) that it will surely never date. This MTC production avoids falling into the trap of relying on the era’s ghastly particularities too heavily, instead showcasing these characters’ problematic relationships and inner crises.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s Abigail’s Party is at the Sumner Theatre until April 21