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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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THEATRE REVIEW: Sian Tutill triumphs as Hester in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at Axbridge Town Hall

ACT Deep Blue Sea Sian Tutill

Sian takes a bow at the end of the show with applause from the cast for her performance as Hester

The Deep Blue Sea. Axbridge Town Hall

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Hester Collyer has to choose between her stuffy wealthy husband Sir William Collyer or her washed up drunken charmer and one time fighter pilot and lover Freddie Page for whom the world stopped at the height of the Battle of Britain.

Terence Rattigan’s marital crisis drama set in 1950s London is a surprise. Not the emotionally constipationally afflicted story of stiff upper lip middle class suburbia but the eternal battles of uneven relationships in which the protagonist in the partnerships desires change.

As protagonists go Sian Tutill as the manipulative, confused and depressed Hester gave one of the best demonstrations of character acting you will see outside of professional theatre. Totally convincing from the moment she attempts to gas herself to the climactic final scene as she wrestles with the trauma that her love affair with Freddie may be over. Tutill convinces as a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown – using her body, face, voice and hands – she gives a magnetic performance. Anguished and agonised with Rattigan’s articulate dialogue this is a very 21st century study of how we feel in a relationship that’s going nowhere and not the period piece it can be.

Chris Jarman as Freddie and Tony Wilson as his chummy ex RAF mate Jackie Jackson appeared to have missed the privations of 1950s’ rationing and perhaps were little too senior in years to have been so recently discharged from flying Spitfires but as voices they sounded right. In fact this would work well as a radio play as there is little action apart from the odd door slamming and clinking of whisky glasses. Despite Tutill’s dominating stage persona Jarman held his own in their powerful one to one scenes. His final pitiful emotional self flagellatorypronouncement that: “It’s written in great bloody letters of fire over our heads – ‘you and I are death to each other’” thus potentially spelling the end of the affair was delivered with feeling and to many will chime as an accurate take on relationships that have gone past their sell by date.

Maggie Stanley made a robust and believable landlady as Mrs Elton and Phil Saunders gave a strong performance as Hester’s dry old stick of a legal bigwig husband. Then there was the very odd couple in Ann and Philip Welch played by Nigel Newton (great suit) and Diane Lukins (great hair). Well, odd in the sense as to who would want these two studies in embarrassment as neighbours? Both were wonderfully awkward and suitably stiff from the moment they offered to help out at a suicide attempt and went on to say all the wrong things – bless them. As symbols of how out of touch 1950s Britain was to the issue of mental health, marital problems or expressing true feelings they couldn’t have been better.

And praise too for David Parkin as the helpful Mr Miller, bookie and sometime unofficial doctor whose Germanic accent didn’t slip and whose charm began to melt the brittle exterior of the slightly unhinged Hester. Here was a character of his time – could he have been a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany trying to make a living as a Bookie’s clerk? A nice touch from Rattigan – today he’d be more likely be a Kurd or a Syrian. He’s there as the antidote to a society obsessed with social norms – ahead of his time.

These inflections, minor characters and themes come from a playwright who in his own time could not fully be himself as he was gay. The Deep Blue Sea written in 1952 has been interpreted as a coded drama of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ but in truth it feels more like a story about grown-ups for grown-ups without gimmicks or twists of plot. A play anyone in a relationship will immediately understand.

Directed by John Bailey and produced by John Kendall this Axbridge Community Theatre version of Rattigan’s play is an excellent piece of work by the director and his cast marking a further development of the company.

It’s a long and emotional without any theatrics, and yet as the arguments unravel we see more than a glimpse of our own relationships articulated by a cast keen to highlight the dialogue that hasn’t aged and continues to give.

The play runs to Saturday, November 25th, 2017, at Axbridge Town Hall.

Rupert Bridgwater