The iconic character of Beverley Moss in Abigail’s Party is a classic. The party host, she is a monster who inflicts her ‘sophisticated’ tastes onto all the guests while trying to score points against her equally grim estate agent husband.
Created on stage and on TV by Alison Steadman, she’s the main reason Mike Leigh’s satire on the 1970s middle classes is still remembered both fondly and with horror – and she’s impossible to change.
Jodie Prenger – winner of the Beeb’s I’d Do Anything – is the latest actress to get her teeth into the role and says she’ll be staying very much in the character Steadman made so famous.
“That role is just so iconic in the way it was performed and created,” she explains. “So much came out of improvisation. It’s hard to deliver it in a totally different way. It wouldn’t make sense to change it –you’d look like a wally.”
Director Sarah Esdaile agrees, saying: “The fundamental challenge for me is, in a way, escaping from the voice of Alison Steadman, who everyone has in their heads as Beverly.
“I met Alison and she told me ‘I was part of the process of creating that character, so I’m intrinsically in it. There’s no point trying to escape me.’ That was so liberating, to realise you don’t have to run away from that.”
The play is intrinsically of its time – it premiered in 1977 – with the music of Demis Roussos and Tom Jones, ice and lemon and Beaujolais all cropping up at regular intervals.
It’s based on a party when three sets of neighbours come together for a pleasant evening which turns into the complete opposite because they’ve all got so much going on individually that they’re not dealing with privately.
“It’s uncomfortable and deliciously dark,” says Jodie. “It’s full of that thing where you don’t really want to watch, but you can’t look away.
“It’s about all the primary things that we’re worried about and will always be worried about until the end of time – aspiration and hunger and thirst and confinement and hope. It’s full of these wonderful sayings and it’s very accessible.
“It’s quite extraordinary that it’s got this power that has just been going for decades, isn’t it?”
Sarah says it’s still relevant because the themes are universal, explaining: “It takes place, socially and politically, at a really interesting turning point in the history of this country. It’s just before Margaret Thatcher came into power and there was rise in people’s obsession with consumerism, belongings and position. It deals with aspiration and disappointment.”
Leigh’s original was created using lots of improvisation by the actors and, although there’s now a set script, Sarah was keen to maintain the tradition.
“It’s about using improvisation in the right circumstances,” she says. “We set up scenarios that will really enrich the work that the actors bring to the stage.
“Often improvisation can be slightly naval gazing and ultimately there’s no evidence of the work. In this case, the subtle dynamics, the differences and the shifts that that work achieves, you’ll be able to smell it on stage.”
Being on stage is important, according to Jodie, even though most people remember Abigail’s Party as a TV classic.
“There is something magical about going to the
theatre,” she says. “You’re sat amongst hundreds of people and you never know
what’s going to happen. Switching on the TV, you know what you’re going to get.
With theatre anything can happen.”
Party will be at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking, from Monday (25 Feb) until
Saturday 2 March.