Review: Abigail’s Party, Opera House Manchester

This touring production of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party opts for comedy rather than tragicomedy at the Opera House Manchester, losing a little depth in order to find more laughs

“Let’s get pissed”

I spotted at least two people dressed up as Beverly at this matinée of Abigail’s Party at Manchester’s Opera House, a sure sign of cult status for any play. But it also means that their particular version of it can be stuck in aspic, making it difficult for any new interpretation to break through one’s own pre-programmed laugh track, to offer up a new reading of an oh-so-familiar text.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone – for me, ‘Demis Roussos’ is up there with ‘a handbag’ in terms of iconic lines – but Mike Leigh’s play has always struck me as a desperately sad one rather than an out and out comedy. Last year’s production at Hornchurch and the Menier’s 2012 production brought those sour notes but interestingly, Sarah Esdaile’s touring production opts for out and out farce. Continue reading “Review: Abigail’s Party, Opera House Manchester”

Review: Abigail’s Party / Abi, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch

Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and Atiha Sen Gupta’s response piece Abi make for a stirring double bill at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch

“Of all the decades to stuck in, the 1970s, really?!”

Yes sir, she can boogie. Rights issues may mean that Donna Summer has been replaced with Baccara but as Melanie Gutteridge’s Beverly shimmies around her front room, there’s a beautiful lightness and freedom to her that we never get to see again. For the neighbours are coming round, and her husband’s running late, and she’s no lagers in – the lot of a suburban social-climbing hostess sure ain’t an easy one, but not even she could predict how this evening will turn out.

Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party is surely to be considered a British classic. And as it is set in Romford, it makes great sense for Douglas Rintoul to stage it at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch (in co-production with Derby Theatre, Wiltshire Creative and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg). And if there is a slight sense of reverence to this production – there are no great departures from the original – there’s something extremely satisfying in seeing it receive such loving treatment as here.  Continue reading “Review: Abigail’s Party / Abi, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch”

Review: Abigail’s Party, Curve

“Do you like Demis Roussos?”

There must be a market for a completely immersive version of Abigail’s Party – that said, there’s probably already been one in Edinburgh – but given how close Suba Das’ production brings us to the gin and cheese and pineapple in an ingenious in-the-round staging here, it might actually be too much to bear. Seated around David Woodhead’s brilliantly observed living room set design and the most lurid orange carpet you ever did see, there really is no escape from this most awkward of social occasions – Das dares us not to flinch not only from Abigail’s gaze but from that of the audience members around us whose presence equally cannot be ignored.

The play remains a classic – Natalie Thomas’ neurotic party host Beverly nails a voice that could crack glass and works in a satisfying amount of vulnerability in with the viciousness with which she flails as the party spirals out of control. Patrick Moy as her tense husband Laurence builds powerfully as his patience and small talk is worn increasingly thin and resentment finally explodes. Cary Crankson and Emily Head’s new neighbours are just as excruciatingly entertaining to watch – Crankson in particular standing out, rounding off a marvellously prolific year – and Jackie Morrison’s Sue completes the cast in gormless wonder. Continue reading “Review: Abigail’s Party, Curve”

Film Review: Mr Turner (2014)

“There’s no room for cynicism in the reviewing of art”

One might equally say there’s no room for cynicism in my reviewing of Mike Leigh’s work, such a fan of his oeuvre am I and the laidback, gruff charms of Mr Turner are no exception, confirming the iconic director in the full flush of his prime. Timothy Spall has already been deservedly rewarded for his wonderfully harrumphing performance of the last 10 years of the life of this most famous of painters and it is a compelling portrait, of a man established in his world as a bachelor, a master painter, and later a lover. Leigh’s episodic style fits perfectly into this biographical mode, dipping in and out of his life with the precision of one of Turner’s paintbrushes, colouring in a captivating collage of his later life.

Spall is excellent but around him, the women in his life provide some of the most hauntingly beautiful moments of the film. As Sarah Danby, the mistress and mother of the two daughters he would not recognise, Ruth Sheen is piercingly vivid, her barely contained fury resonating deeply. As Hannah Danby, her niece who was Turner’s long-suffering and long-serving housekeeper, Dorothy Atkinson is painfully brilliant as a woman subjugated and subdued by his wanton sexual advances, the psoriasis that afflicted her, and her deep love for the man. As “self-taught Scotswoman” and scientist Mary Somerville, Lesley Manville near steals the film in a simply beautiful self-contained vignette. Continue reading “Film Review: Mr Turner (2014)”

Short Film Review #37

Method Actor from Justin Stokes on Vimeo.

A monologue by the silken-voiced John Shrapnel is something to look forward to no matter the format, and Justin Stokes’ short film Method Actor is a brilliant vehicle for it. Mere minutes long, it courses through the imagination of an ageing actor as he dispenses bitterly-won advice on how he has gotten where he has, Glenn Smith’s script cleverly weaving its way into unexpected places and DP John Lynch creating a gorgeously lush world for him to inhabit. Continue reading “Short Film Review #37”

Re-review: Abigail’s Party, Wyndhams

“Our nation’s culture. Not something you can actually read, of course.”

There’s something mildly amusing about the above quote, which refers to Shakespeare by the way, given the Bardathon currently going on at the Globe and beyond and it is one that I didn’t pick up the first time I saw Abigail’s Party. I’d never seen it before despite the Alison Steadman version being a cult classic and so the whole show was a revelation to me, especially in how dark it was given I’d assumed it was more of a comedy. That original review from this production’s original run at the Menier Chocolate Factory can be read here but it has now made the leap into the West End at the Wyndhams where it will run for the summer after it sold out at the Menier.

I don’t really have much more to add about the show second time round, except to say that the Wyndhams is a great fit for it, the sense of intimacy is still there as Beverly’s living room occupies a letterbox set on the larger stage and has brought with it all the beautifully observed period details. Performances remain sharp across the board, Natalie Casey really is excellent as the gin-soaked Ange, Andy Nyman oozes unreconstructed machismo as Laurence and Jill Halfpenny sweeps all before her as the acidic Beverly. Continue reading “Re-review: Abigail’s Party, Wyndhams”

Review: Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory

“We’ve got whiskey, gin, vodka, whatever you like”

Whisper it quietly, but I’ve never actually seen Abigail’s Party. I came to Mike Leigh rather late and carrying so much cultural baggage and expectation with it, it’s never been a film I’ve felt a particular inclination to take in. So when the Menier Chocolate Factory announced it was producing a revival of the play, it didn’t really register on my radar of things that I needed to see. But excellent word-of-mouth and general expressions of shock that I’d never seen it before encouraged me to book a ticket when a chance visit to the theatre’s website offered up a return for sale.

Jill Halfpenny takes on Beverly, the role iconically made famous by Alison Steadman (I know that much at least) and though it is her outrageous ‘fantasticness’ that forms a large part of the play and the excruciating comedy it contains, it remains thoroughly a Mike Leigh piece at heart. So painful marital discord abounds and if the prevailing tone is comedic, it is piercingly dark and cutting. For someone watching it for the first time, I didn’t find it half as funny as nearly everyone around me. Continue reading “Review: Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory”

Weekend #4 – Mike Leigh’s films of the 2000s

One of the main reasons for starting this series of Weekend posts was the set of presents that various of my friends bought me for Christmas: collections of DVDs in order to explore the work of people who I don’t know much about, in this case Mike Leigh. For whatever reason, he never really entered my cultural sphere for the longest time, so it was a slow introduction to his work for me – Vera Drake was my first of his films, Happy Go Lucky the first I saw in a cinema, and even then I didn’t really investigate his work further despite enjoying them. But breaking my theatrical duck with him last year in Ecstasy and Grief piqued the interest and being given a mountain of his DVDs meant I now had the opportunity to work my way through.

 This set of posts will focus on his film work from the 2000s, so All or Nothing, Vera Drake, Happy Go Lucky and Another Year are all getting the Clowns treatment. I’m just giving my opinions on the films, there’s nothing too deep here so you’ll have to look elsewhere for some decent film analysis, this is more along the lines of ‘ooh, look how many of these people I’ve seen on stage!’. What I will say though was my favourite thing about watching these four films in close succession, was the real sense that emerged of the ensemble. Indeed it felt like a theatre company in rep with many of the same actors appearing and reappearing and taking on such varied roles – a genuine thrill.

DVD Review: All or Nothing

“Love, it’s like a dripping tap”

First up was 2002’s All or Nothing, though it was a little of an inauspicious beginning, as I’m not sure how much I actually liked this film in the end. Set on a modern-day London council estate, it circles the fortunes of three working-class families and their everyday lives, so far so Leigh, but it doesn’t really develop into anything that gripped me. There are several outstandingly strong elements in here, but they never really coalesce into an effective whole but rather remain too separate and thus end up losing some impact.

The focus settles on one of the families: Phil, Timothy Spall, is a taxi driver who has long lost ambition for life and is reduced to scraping pennies from his family in order to pay his retainer for the taxi firm; Penny, Lesley Manville, works the checkout at a supermarket and is struggling to remember what it is she ever loved about Phil. Alison Garland plays their daughter Rachel who works as a cleaner in an old people’s home and is being semi-stalked by Sam Kelly’s much older colleague and James Corden is their unemployed and belligerent son. There’s a whole lot of misery, which is then alleviated by tragedy, which ultimately suggests that life might hold something more. Continue reading “DVD Review: All or Nothing”

DVD Review: Vera Drake

“She’s gonna get herself in trouble one of these days”

I’m pretty sure that Vera Drake was actually the first Mike Leigh film I saw, and what a cracker it is. It really is an extraordinary performance from Imelda Staunton as the perma-humming cheerful soul with a positive word and deed for everyone around her, the nice suggestion of putting the kettle on being the remedy for everything and her kindly demeanour drawing people close to her.

Vera’s family life is perfectly drawn too: the drudgery of post-war working-class existence in no way stinted on and the different ways it has affected people clearly evident in her children, Daniel Mays making the best of things as a cheery chatty tailor and Alex Kelly’s cowed Ethel, somewhat diminished by life as a light-bulb tester. With Phil Davis completing the family unit, there’s such genuine connectivity to these scenes, a real sense of family life being lived and a gorgeous flicker of romance brightening Ethel’s life, that the knock on the door as the law finally catches up with Vera really does come as a genuine heart-wrenching kick as their lives are shattered by the revelation that she has been carrying out illegal abortions, or just ‘helping some girls out’ as she puts it. Continue reading “DVD Review: Vera Drake”