Step back to the 1970s with this comedy directed by one of Melbourne indie theatre’s best and brightest
It’s somewhat mind-bending for local audiences to get their heads around the work of UK film and theatre director Mike Leigh, mainly because he is famous for a particular style of rehearsal that doesn’t necessarily illuminate the diversity of his output. He’s known for long periods of development, where the actors fully immerse themselves in the roles, often improvising for months on end even before filming begins. His name is synonymous with “Kitchen-sink drama”, but then films like Topsy-Turvey and Mr Turner – about Gilbert and Sullivan and J. M. W. Turner, respectively – have such a lush romantic sensibility, that the attribution often feels limiting.
Before he became famous for such bleak, uncompromising material as Naked and Secrets and Lies, he produced plays that pilloried the aspirational middle class in Britain. Abigail’s Party, first performed in 1977 and later televised, is one of his most caustic satires, fully embedded in the mores and pretensions of its time and place. It’s a curious vehicle for the MTC debut of Stephen Nicolazzo, one of Australia’s most thrilling young directors; a case could be made for this work as a mirror to our own social and political myopia, but Nicolazzo doesn’t seem interested in making it. Instead he subverts the work, tilting it towards the surreal. It’s an exciting idea, but the results are strangely unsatisfying.
Abigail’s party – the one in the title – is curiously an offstage affair. The party we are witness to belongs entirely to Beverly (Pip Edwards), who has invited recently acquired neighbours Angela (Zoe Boesen) and her husband Tony (Benjamin Rigby), and Abigail’s recently divorced mother Susan (Katherine Tonkin), over for nibbles and gin. If only she can keep her own husband Laurence (Daniel Frederiksen) from serving olives and generally screwing things up. It’s a decidedly thin premise, not to mention a hoary one; playwrights often think that guests plus alcohol over time automatically equates to hilarity and insight. Leigh provides occasional hilarity but very little insight, so the effect on the audience is largely one of head scratching bemusement.
There are rare flashes of brilliance, but they are as much hindered as helped by the heightened aesthetic of Nicolazzo and his designers – set designer Anna Cordingley, costume designer Eugyeene Teh and lighting designer Katie Sfetkidis. The set is a boxed, compartmentalised affair, bringing to mind Celebrity Squares more than anything. The living room is the central acting space and it’s fabulously shag-piled and ludicrously orange, but it also restricts and distances the action. Those costumes are phenomenal, and help Nicolazzo create some stunning tableaux, but the whole thing comes across as a bad dream of the ’70s rather than lived experience. This idea of a kind of camp fantasia is clearly intentional, but the play is cemented in the minutiae of late ’70s suburban life and resolutely refuses to come to the party.
Nicolazzo’s gift with actors is evident, and the cast is uniformly excellent. Edwards is a knockout, slinking and salivating about the space, chucking cheese squares around and splashing gin everywhere. She’s a monstrous capitalist at heart, clutching greedily at whatever is in her reach. Frederiksen plays against type as the hopelessly compromised Laurence, and makes much of the only character with any real arc; his desperate need to acquire some sort of cultural capital, and his sneering distaste for his working-class neighbours, is sad rather than malicious. Boesen is superb as the seemingly ditzy Angela, and Rigby cleverly hints at a real nasty streak under Tony’s cock-eyed swagger. Tonkin mines the fish-out-of-water awkwardness of Susan to brilliant effect, managing to suggest a deep existential dread under her stitched-up formality.
But the actors and the director can only take the material so far, and from this distance the play looks hopelessly facile and outmoded. There are hints in Abigail’s Party of the kind of preoccupations that would come to define Leigh’s subsequent work – characters who feel trapped in social structures they barely understand, harsh satirical edges that morph into something more melancholy, a delight in awkward social rituals – but the overall result is rather inert and schematic. David Williamson did it better six years earlier with Don’s Party. When it was televised in Britain, it was under a program called Play for Today; four decades later, that title seems cruelly ironic.
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