>ABIGAIL'S PARTY by The Stage Club

>reviewed by Matthew lyon

>date: 11 may 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


A suburban Southern English living room - present day. The setting for a party: empty chatter, nouveau-riche one-upmanship, manipulation and eventually death. As settings go, it looked rather good, with Tony Moffat creating a realistic and well-designed room which had some lovely touches - like the hi-fi obviously being plugged in. We members of the Pedantic Society may grumble about the absence of skirting board and the thickness of the wall where it met an archway but then we'll grumble about anything and shouldn't be listened to by reasonable people.

The stage stood empty as the audience entered and I initially thought it didn't look yuppified enough, but the first appearance of Beverly in a lime-green cocktail dress, swigging a G&T and swaying big-time from the hips changed my mind. And when Lawrence came on, besuited, be-mobile-phoned and obviously overworked, the new impression was reinforced.

The cast obviously knew their characters. In every case, within a couple of seconds of each actor's walking onstage, the audience knew what they were being shown: here was Beverly, the manipulative man-hungry bitch; and there was Tony, the monosyllabic and laddish ex-footballer. But the characterisations extended beyond the obvious stereotypes. We were allowed to become aware of the respective states of the play's two marriages - one frigid, the other antagonistic - not just by the lines we heard but by the body language and the interactions of the spouses. In short, it was easy to believe in these roles as possible people and if the occasional knowingly raised eyebrow nudged things into the realms of overacting, we'll just blame Mike Leigh, whose scripts do seem to encourage this.

>>'The cast obviously knew their characters'

Angela Noller's direction, however, was certainly not overdone. Much of the play was static, as befits a play set in a modern living room where most of the time people are just talking; and it was refreshing that Noller did not introduce extraneous movement for movement's sake. When the characters did move, therefore, they seemed at ease, with very few moments of unintentional aimlessness.

Noller also had an ear for the subtler points of Leigh's dialogue; all the implications were wrung out of the lines and perhaps reinforced with the slightest glance or gesture - not to make the point too obvious, but to ensure it wouldn't be missed by those who were listening.

One criticism: the title ABIGAIL'S PARTY refers to a rave being held a couple of doors down by the teenage daughter of one of the characters. Although we never see any of it, there are frequent references to the unsavoury guests pulling up in the street and the loudness of the music they are playing. To account for such references, a heavy bass beat would fade up while the actors were talking about the party, and fade down shortly after, making the whole thing seem rather contrived and artificial. Playing the bass beat all the time would have been a very brave decision - such things can be very irritating - but would have been truer, and may have contributed tension to the more dramatic scenes.

But this is a very minor gripe, and my only major one regards what is the most challenging element of a Mike Leigh play: timing. Now the man himself is into films, he can just do take after take until he gets it right, but your humble theatre practitioner does not have that same luxury. Most of the scenes in this production were well-timed - particularly the tenser ones - and the actors sparked and bounced off each other nicely; but there were moments when momentum was lost. The cast seemed to have a problem with the meaningless small-talk, which adds so much texture to the play, treating it rather too diffidently. And unfortunately, the beginning and the end both suffered from lines coming just a fraction of a second too soon or too late - but it was a fraction that made a substantial difference to the believability of these crucial scenes.

This is the kind of problem that can only be eradicated by having far more rehearsals than your average "amateur" theatre group can afford, and while The Stage Club's ABIGAIL'S PARTY was a good and well-thought-out production, to make it excellent, all it would have taken was a little more time.