Abigail’s Party, Grand Opera House York

abigail's party press image featuring cast awkwardly sat on sofa and two people stood behind looking at each other suspiciously

Expectations: 3.5/5

Reality: 3.5/5

Chronic Illness-Friendly: 4.5/5

Having never heard of Abigail’s Party* before and deciding to see it based on the synopsis alone, I went into this show with no idea what to expect. And having come out the other side as the small cast took their bows… I still wasn’t quite sure what on Earth I’d just witnessed, but knew it was unlike any theatre experience I’d had before.

See, here’s the thing. When I use words like ‘monotonous’, ‘slow-moving’ and ‘cringe-worthy’, you’d ordinarily expect these to be negative things reflecting a sub-par performance. However, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party uses these things so painfully deliberately that it was actually quite brilliant. It took me a while to warm up to this alternative performance style, and a degree of patience was required at the beginning, but when things started to shift into place in the audience’s heads, you could almost sense the entire congregation getting on board and appreciating the show all the more for it.

Set in the 1970s in a suburban yet lavishly decorated living room, Abigail’s Party is a  painfully honest portrayal of an adult get-together of neighbours: two couples, and a single mum whose teenage daughter Abigail is throwing an increasingly-escalating party in their house just down the street. Although certain events are implicated throughout the play, such as those involving the uncomfortable husband of one of the wives, we never find out what went down at that party. Instead, the play focusses on the increasingly-strained interactions between the hosting couple and their guests as the night progresses and the alcohol flows.

As protagonist Beverly, Jodie Prenger absolutely shines. It’s a golden comedic role, and Prenger’s nuanced yet entirely believable portrayal of the narcissistic housewife entertaining her guests is absolutely brilliant. Although Beverly’s character commands so much of the performance, the entire cast’s character portrayals play an equally important role in essentially making the audience cringe uncomfortably on their behalf.

press image of jodie prenger sat at table in party hat accompanied by balloons and cheese on sticks

The interactions between each character become more and more multi-faceted throughout the show, and it was just as humorous to see audience members chuckling in recognition and nudging their partners as they recognise elements of themselves or their acquaintances in those they’re watching on stage. Even though some of the humour seemed more targeted to a middle-aged audience, there’s still something timeless about it: I’m sure everybody could look at each of the five characters and immediately see somebody they knew in real life in each one of them.

This was an entirely new theatre experience for me, and I kind of loved it. I had mixed feelings going into the interval, but by the time the play had built up to its tumultuous (and quite frankly unforeseen) ending, I was sold. It was a refreshing change for me to see one set (flawlessly designed by Janet Bird), limited special effects and a small cast, with the focus almost solely on the spoken word and direction, expertly handled by Sarah Esdaile. Even though I do personally prefer fast-paced theatre, every single aspect of the performance was so very deliberate that it was impossible not to become invested in whatever ridiculous social situation was going to present itself next.

In short, Abigail’s Party was nothing at all like I expected, but incredibly worthwhile seeing nonetheless. If you’re looking to see something a bit out of your comfort zone yet not too intimidating, this dramatic comedy seems like an ideal choice.  Get yourself some tickets, and enjoy an evening of intoxication, social awkwardness and good old cheese on sticks.

Chronic Illness-Friendly Review

Abigail’s Party was one of the most surprisingly comfortable productions I’ve seen in a long time. With limited graded lighting changes and musical accompaniment, with only infrequent bursts of loud music for short periods of time, it’s a pretty safe choice for those with sensitivity to light and noise.

However, I’d err caution for those with sensitivity to smells. The play cleverly uses scents accessible by the audience to enhance certain things happening on stage, including the characters lighting up cigarettes and spraying perfume. For your average person the scents wouldn’t be overwhelming at all, but it’s something to be aware of if synthetic smells affect your symptoms.

Oh, and I’m sure they’re artificial props but I couldn’t not mention it: the show involves peanuts on stage. I mean, I’m severely allergic and didn’t drop dead there and then so you’re probably going to be alright, but take note nonetheless. Something I’ve been meaning to investigate is whether it’s good practice to disclose this in advance: I remember Sheffield Theatres’ past production of Tribes emphasising that their performance uses real nuts on all their marketing and ticketing in advance, so audience members were aware, and I thought this was awesome. I doubt it’s a requirement at this point (as much as I personally think it should be), but it’s food for thought regardless. Ah, nut allergies. The gift that keeps on giving.

You can find access information for York Grand Opera House on the ATG website*. Something I’ve mentioned before is that if you’re disabled or chronically ill and visiting this venue, I would strongly encourage booking seats in the stalls. There’s no lift, and a fair amount of stairs, and that combined with the level access from the side entrance means that you’re likely much better off going for those seats instead. It may also be worth noting, however, that our seats (row E in the stalls) had a great deal of legroom, and very easy access to exit into the foyer. So if you’re somebody whose symptoms mean you need to fidget or stretch, or you might need to pop out partway through, they would be an excellent choice for you.

If you see Abigail’s Party, I would absolutely love to hear what you think. Don’t forget you can grab £5 tickets for 16-26 year olds in York using the code ‘ABIGAIL5’ when checking out*, and also find other dates and performances for the show on the ATG website*. Yay!

Image credits: Abigail’s Party Press Images. 

Press tickets courtesy of Grand Opera House York* in exchange for this review. See what’s on and book tickets for upcoming shows at Grand Opera House York on the ATG website*, and do let me know what you’re seeing next. You can find the rest of my stagey plans for 2019 here, too!

Links marked with * are affiliate links: I earn a small commission from any sales made through these links, at no extra cost to you.

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