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'Abigail's Party' Moves to Trump's America

21/11/2016 12:27

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What a cocktail party: (l-r) Nick Hetherington, Sarah Street, John Pirkis and Lily Dorment.
All Photos: Tea for Two

Mike Leigh's venerable 1977 play Abigail's Party about mismatched married couples during a small cocktails-induced soiree is finally getting its New York stage debut in an Off Broadway production that opened 13 November and runs through 3 December.

Given last week's shocking US presidential result, one wonders how Abigail - the never-seen 16-year-old teenager holding a loud bash with sex and booze across the street - would soon fare today in Trump's America, poised to ban a woman's right to abortion, a federal law in effect for 43 years. Her divorced mum Sue can't keep track of the number of her apparently loose daughter's boyfriends.

With the play situated in an East London suburb, these two couples given the chance no doubt would have voted in favour of Brexit nearly four decades later.

Leigh certainly has been responsible for more overtly political plays and films, Naked and the abortion drama Vera Drake being the best of them, but the undercurrent of the dialogue from estate salesman Laurence Moss and his middle-class, tart-of-a-wife Beverly, suggests they're all fed up with immigration driving down property values.

The play is a commentary on consumerism, as the neighbours strive to keep up with Joneses (nee Mosses). Their guests, subservient nurse Angela and her husband Tony Cooper, a non-college educated computer operator, moved in a fortnight ago in a sparsely furnished house down the street. Beverly has the hots for Tony, who noticed "the colored chaps" among Abigail's guests, as soon as he arrives.

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Lily Dorment and Sarah Street

Beverly blames "women's lib" for what's going wrong with the world, not unlike the millions of white women who handed the presidency to Trump despite all his considerable peccadilloes.

Perhaps not unlike the First Lady to be, Beverly married her "boring" husband (oblivious to his wife snogging Tony in the corner) for his money, while her friend also apparently has blinders on.

Laurence seems to be a better match for Sue, the fifth wheel in this quintet. She has similar tastes in classical music, art and even olives, and clearly is having a rough time since the divorce raising Abigail, who despises her, and her also unseen 11-1/2 year old son Jeremy.

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Colleen Clinton and John Pirkis

Laurence is a bit of a Brexit enigma for his appreciation of Paris and Van Gogh, but no doubt in 2016 his nationalistic pride will take precedence over a bit of culture, only he won't make past this night, as those familiar with the play know.

It takes a winning ensemble such as this to capture Leigh's caste-conscious nuances, as I encountered on 13 November, the second performance of the run, directed by Lee Brock.

Neither Beverly (Sarah Street) nor Laurence (John Pirkis) realise their condescending and controlling ways of addressing these supposed friends because they are more comfortably middle class than the chav Tony (Nick Hetherington) and his subservient wife Angela (Lily Dorment), who politely shrugs off her hostess's obnoxious makeup tips. It's how the Mosses deflect their disdain for each other, and unfolds similarly to the verbal volleying of the principal characters in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Street provides a very physical performance, as she floats around her front room with carelessly hoisting her G&T in hand, obliviously spilling it repeatedly on the carpet, something she warns Sue (Colleen Clinton) should worry about with Abigail and her friends. Beverly does her best to seduce Tony and eventually succeeds, even with her supposed friend standing a few feet away, as the high-strung, workaholic Laurence awkwardly attempts to dance with Angela.

Kudos to the The Barrow Group, a 30-year-old theatre troupe in Manhattan, for resurrecting Abigail's Party with the Pond Theatre Group, whose five-member transatlantic cast includes three Brits (Pirkis, Hetherington, and Dorment) and two Yanks (Street and Clinton). The production's genesis is interesting. The show's three actresses were taking a Barrow Group workshop a few months ago, trying out Abigail scenes, which led to a workshop. The current production marks the New York debut of the play; the only other US staging occurred in San Francisco in 2009.

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John Pirkis

Pirkis explains to me over breakfast two days later that he was the only one among the five actors who had seen Leigh's original Abigail's Party when it ran on BBC-1 as a "Play for Today" on 1 November 1977 when he was 17 years old.

"I think it's very relevant to this day: The class war, this need for materialism to be seen as successful," said Pirkis, whose own background aristocracy and upper class, as the son of a doctor, who was dismayed that his son at 9 years old chose acting as a profession.

"My impressions of Abigail's Party then, [Leigh, also the son of a doctor] was pulling no punches. It could come across as a minimal farce, but it was so spot on, the characterizations of society at the time. Women just then were beginning to have a say. I had friends whose mothers didn't drive and weren't encouraged to drive. The characters were almost caricatures but not quite. Domestic violence in the home was prevalent but certainly wasn't documented the way it is now. People were too embarrassed, too ashamed. They wouldn't come forward and wouldn't be believed. Now there are safe houses for women who are abused," noted Pirkis, who first lived in Los Angeles for a few years before settling in New York three years ago.

"My father was violent and I grew up listening to them screaming, yelling and things being thrown around. I'm not aware my mother was ever hit. She did drive, but she was very much a lady who lunched. I had a nanny, a cook, gardeners, maids. My wanted me to be a doctor, follow my father's footsteps. My Latin failed me. I would have never gotten into Westminster. When my father was at Westminster the fellow who polishes his shoes, makes the bed, was Peter Ustinov, so he became my godfather. My father sent me to him when I was 16 to dissuade me from becoming an actor. So he invited me to lunch during the filming of Death on the Nile. I sat down with Maggie Smith, Bette Davis, David Niven, and Ustinov said, "There's no way am I going to deter you from becoming an actor because you'll hold that against me for the rest of your days. My father was furious."

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