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Abigail's Party by Mike Leigh - Melbourne Theatre Company

Benjamin Rigby & Pip Edwards in Abigail's Party
Photo: Jeff Busby

The middle-class dinner party that descends into chaos is a pretty classic theatrical trope and a mainstay of the Melbourne Theatre Company mainstage. Gather five people in a room, give them alcohol and some conflict and the drama writes itself. Most of the time, the troubles of wealthy inner-suburban types are typical First World Problems and often boil down to “we’re doing well, but we’re just not satisfied with our lives”.

Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party is basically the same set-up but written in 1970s Britain, it’s about the aspirational newly middle-class – people who want what their neighbours have. People who are doing the done thing: marriage, kids, buying a house. But they’re not sure they belong and are desperately trying to fit in.

Leigh’s play is a bleak social satire but the tone of MTC’s production, directed by Stephen Nicolazzo (of Little Ones theatre company), is one of camp and farce. This is a world and decades away from the original play and the filmed BBC drama that starred Alison Steadman.

The audience is struck by a bold, uncompromising set on the Southbank Theatre stage. Looking something like a 70s game show, these are portals into another world. Small off-set windows into a bedroom, the bathroom and the garage frame the central space that is wall-to-wall shagpile and drapes. Everything is blindingly Fanta orange, where the dinner party guests are trapped for most of the show’s running time.

And trapped is the key to their predicament. Hostess Beverly (Pip Edwards) wants everyone to have a good time, to the point where she is desperate to control everything. Husband Lawrence (Daniel Fredriksen) wants to prove he can fit into this new neighbourhood, by quoting from literature and refusing to play Demis Roussos too loud.

Angela and Tony’s relationship seems even more fraught. They are brand new to the estate, having moved into a house from the furnished apartment where they began their marriage. Angela is a nurse and Tony is a computer programmer, but we get the sense their home life is unpleasant.

Benjamin Rigby does a stunning job of playing the monosyllabic Tony, who cuts a fine figure in a bright white suit, taking up as much space as he can, manspreading at every opportunity. In a sea of characters in extremis, Tony is the most unpredictable – like he might erupt into a violent rage at any moment. And what did happen when he and Lawrence looked in on Abigail’s Party?

Yes, the titular party isn’t even the focus of the play. Angela is the teenage daughter of Susan, a single-mother who gets along fine with her ex-husband. She’s at Beverly’s dinner party to give her daughter a night to have fun. It’s the rest of the adults at the dinner party who are worried about what’s happening down the street.

Katharine Tonkin’s Susan is nervous and quiet and uncomfortable in this atmosphere. You feel for her every time she’s offered another cheese-and-pineapple canape. And it’s Tonkin’s descent into the madness of the other characters that makes a real impression; from not drinking too much on an empty stomach, to spilling her drinks with wild abandon like everyone else.

Inside this heightened experience, the actors and Nicolazzo do find the humanity within these characters, though. That’s a recurring motif in Nicolazzo’s work with Little Ones; inside the camp and the queer, there are people hurting by the roles society expects them to play.

There’s a moment in this production where everything seems to slow down, into a dreamlike state, and we get to focus on a long-held gaze and a look of disappointment and another of despair. The ridiculous, for a moment, gives way to the sublime.

This is the kind of experiment I hope MTC tries more often; take a classic work and let an indie theatremaker turn it on its head. There’s nothing I dread more than seeing a dinner party drama at the Melbourne Theatre Company, so it’s much more thrilling to see this bleak classic turned upside-down and pushed outside its and the audience’s comfort zone.

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