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RAPSCALLION MAGAZINE – THEATRE REVIEW: Back to the future in the soiree from hell with the new middle classes of England in 1977

Love to hate you baby: Beverly and Laurence in Abigail's Party

Love to hate you baby: Beverly and Laurence in Abigail’s Party

Abigail’s Party. Alma Theatre, Bristol

Set in the 1970s Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party is still a play about us. Fashions transform and house prices rise, but people don’t change that much. It is the reason why the tragic comedy about the soiree from hell that gripped the nation in 1977 continues to make us feel uncomfortable with its unpicking of social norms in its uncompromising exposure of how we behave.

Socially things haven’t changed much since Beverly threw open her front door to her neighbours for an evening of nibbles and talk of property prices. Set in aspic are lower middle class Tony and Angela, middle class Sue and aspiring middle class Beverly and Laurence.

The hero of the social occasion featuring non-stop G&T top ups and cheese and pineapple on sticks is Angela played with perfect awkwardness by Jennifer Jope complete with a cringingly submissive compliance to her bullying husband Tony. For NHS nurse Angela takes charge first when Sue is sick and then when host Laurence (Adam Elms) takes ill, banishing social norms and asserting her authority in the drunken emergency. Her ex-professional footballer Tony was played with moody masculinity by Ryan Gilks who had an alarmingly convincing sexual chemistry with Beverly (Anna Friend) but sees his authority reduced as the crisis grows. Diane Lukins as the excruciatingly polite Sue was at once bullied, manipulated and insulted by Beverly, but in reality was breaking all of Beverly’s unwritten social rules. She was a single divorced mum who allows her rebellious teenage daughter Abigail to have an unsupervised party and even more shockingly: to have a pink streak in her hair. Well it was 1977.

Anna Friend as Beverly in Abigail's Party

Anna Friend as Beverly in Abigail’s Party

So much of what we discuss today is there in this period piece of four decades ago: the power relationships between men and women, what is life really about, materialism and consumerism, the social status and salaries associated with different jobs, and the social does and don’ts of You and Non You. The role of women has changed to some extent since the play was first staged. Now Sue wouldn’t be thought of as so unusual as a divorced mother and Angela would most likely have demanded to be allowed to learn to drive. And quite possibly Beverly would have had a job – and vaped rather than smoked – but Laurence’s social pretentions would likely to be unchanged. It is certainly a play that leads to considerable discussion afterwards because as I have mentioned – it’s about us.

The Schoolhouse production at Bristol’s Alma Tavern Theatre was directed by Anna Friend and co-directed by Holly Newton who clearly had enjoyed taking the cast back to the flock wall paper and shag pile carpet era when it was OK to smoke indoors. It is a highly enjoyable and faithful production as Friend has allowed each character to have a new lease of life. Leigh’s dialogue flows so naturally that he must have attended quite a few soirees in order to take notes while the play’s construction with is shocking black humour of a climax still surprises – but is also so appropriate in bringing the evening to a perfect close.

Harry Mottram

The cast and crew of the show

The cast and crew of the show

It is interesting to note the drama began through improvisation before it was staged with great success at the Hampstead Theatre is April 1977. Then a version was made for television for BBC Scotland in the series A Play For Today and was broadcast in November of that year. It featured Alison Steadman as Beverly, Tim Stern as Laurence, Janine Duvitski as Angela, John Salthouse as Tony and Thelma Whiteley as Sue. Thelma Whiteley’s role was played by Harriet Reynolds when it was screened on TV.

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Children’s Theatre Magazine REVIEW: Teenage sex, soggy biscuits and witty one liners in A Taste of Honey at the Alma Tavern Theatre

Sympathy: Jo finds a friend in A Taste Of Honey

Sympathy: Jo finds a friend in A Taste Of Honey

A Taste of Honey. Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol

Age range: 11+

In the confined space of the Alma Tavern Theatre we enter the claustrophobic world of northern England on the cusp of the 1960s. It’s damp, dingy and depressing in the Salford flat designed by Jenny Davies with its shared bathroom and lavatory down the corridor. There’s Jo, her mother Helen and her abusive husband-to-be-Peter. And there’s the joy of damp bedclothes, luke warm coffee and a heater that doesn’t work. It’s not a love nest but rather a snapshot of British social angsts of the late 1950s where there’s nothing much to eat except soggy biscuits.

Rebecca Robson as Helen crackled with sexual and social frustration as she snapped, scolded and scathed anything and anyone who didn’t fit into her narrow view of the world. Her unlikely looking daughter Jo (Bethan Croome) took most of the flack although with her flat Merseyside accent she deflected every insult with some of Delaney’s best lines.

Setting: it all gets very tense in A Taste of Honey

Setting: it all gets very tense in A Taste of Honey

On her mother fishing for compliments: “You don’t look forty. You look a sort of well-preserved sixty.” And on her mother’s fake concern for her care: “The time to have taken care of me was years ago, when I couldn’t take care of myself.”

It’s a world where black men are the ultimate taboo, gay men are disgusting ‘pansies’ and worst of all, foreign food such as spaghetti is so horrific it should probably be isolated and exterminated.

Stroppy: Jo's mum kept up the attack throughout the play

Stroppy: Jo’s mum kept up the attack throughout the play

Director Matt Grinter’s take on Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 social drama at the Alma Theatre played it straight. With an authentically grotty set, period music and authentic yellowy lighting the Red Rope Theatre production of one of the classics of the post war era didn’t disappoint. Elliot Chapman as Peter may have over stated his case at first but his underlying aggressive alcoholic persona who goes too far unnerved just enough. Jimmie played by Joey Akubeze was perfectly nuanced as he woos Jo, and Geoff portrayed by Zach Powell in an understated but sympathetic style was an effective foil to Jo who in turns abused him and lent on him for support.

Lovers: Jo finds her man in A Taste of Honey

Lovers: Jo finds her man in A Taste of Honey

The required chemistry between mother and daughter was initially lacking in hormones, but Bethan Croome as Jo grew into the role as the drama unfolded and was at her best in Act 2 when sparring with Geoff in the most challenging role to play: the classic coming of age teenager caught up in the injustices of the world but armed with unfeasibly witty show stopping lines. Gritty, gripping and a window on a past era with timeless themes of injustice, mother and daughter conflict and social inequalities that remain as relevant today as they did in the pre-Wilsonian period.

Three stars

Harry Mottram

The show runs to October 29, 2016.