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Abigail’s Party review at Theatre Royal, Brighton – ‘time-capsule theatre’

Jodie Prenger and Calum Callaghan in Abigail's Party. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Beverly, the suburban hostess of Mike Leigh’s 1977 comic drama, is one of theatre’s great monsters. She’s toweringly awful, controlling, aggressive and selfish. But there’s also something pathetic about her, a woman locked in a marriage to a man who bores her rigid, at a time when the alternative, life as a single woman, was still stigmatised.

Jodie Prenger makes a lascivious Beverly, shimmying around the room in her paisley maxi dress and Adriatic eye shadow, a cigarette pinched between her carmine fingernails as she foists cheese-and-pineapple upon her guests with the delicacy of a commandant.

Alison Steadman famously originated the role and Prenger has nailed all her insistent delivery, all her little upticks of speech, but her performance is too voluminous: laughter repeatedly trumping nuance.

The same is true of Sarah Esdaile’s touring production. It’s played almost at the pitch of farce throughout, allowing little room for the escalation of tension, while undercutting the emotional impact of the ending.

As the gin flows freely at Beverly’s soiree, Prenger becomes even more imposing and resentful, but there are too few cracks in her façade.

There’s subtler work from Vicky Binns as the simpering Angela, a figure of fun for the most part but capable and collected when the situation calls for it. Rose Keegan is also good as the softly spoken and gently acquiescent single mum Sue, even though her character sometimes comes across as a collection of nervy little head bobs topped with a Sarah Miles haircut.

Daniel Casey, as Beverly’s estate-agent husband Lawrence, is relatively restrained, bottling things up like so many men of his time were wont, but Calum Callaghan’s Tony is something of a one-note bully in a suede jacket, his disdain for Angela barely contained.

It is, however, a wonderfully designed production. Janet Bird’s set abounds in period details: from the bookcase-cum-cocktail cabinet to the obligatory sheepskin rug, the spider plants and tobacco-and-tangerine geometric print curtains, the acres of pine panelling. Even the just-glimpsed kitchen is full of lovely 1970s touches. The costumes are also fittingly hideous too, from Lawrence’s tan shirt and brown tie combo to the infantilising pastel pink dress that Angela sports.

Watching it now, it’s interesting how damning Leigh’s play is about toxic masculinity and the entrapment of marriage. The moment when Beverly and Angela discuss their emotionally abusive fathers, and Beverly says she won’t mourn hers when he goes, is profoundly sad, but much of that gets lost amid all the easy laughter at the expense of Demis Roussos and people who put red wine in the fridge.

The unsettling moment when Angela says Tony won’t let her drive is allowed to slide by. The legacy of the original looms problematically large. The complexity of nostalgia goes unexplored. It’s time-capsule theatre, polished as a walnut-and-glass coffee table, but with the volume cranked up as high as the rumble from the unseen Abigail’s party next door.

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Jodie Prenger stars in a handsomely designed but overly broad staging of Mike Leigh's excruciating comedy