The most famous version of Abigail’s Party is the one starring Alison Steadman, recorded by the BBC in 1977. Did you watch this again, before embarking on the project, or did you avoid it? I watched it. I think it’s important to embrace it rather than run away from it. And I think all the actors have been able to watch it, and process it, and still make all their own choices and interpretations.
Have you kept its setting in the 70s? Of course! I wouldn’t have dared not to. That’s what a lot of people are expecting. It’s a little like the Rocky Horror Show, in a way. People even have Abigail’s Party parties. And all the contextual references are from that pre-Thatcher era of the mid-to-late seventies. But there’s a modern relevance, too.
It must have been fun collecting together the props for the set… Well that’s not my job, of course, but we’ve had great fun working with all those browns and beiges and oranges. And you hear people coming out saying ‘we had one of them’, or ‘my mum had one of those’…
And the music! Of course. Everyone comes away singing Demis Roussos’ Forever and Ever. I’ve come to like it, actually. It’s become a guilty pleasure…
Beverly, the hostess, is the anchor of the play… She’s a very interesting character, because, of course, she’s unbearable, and, of course, she’s a monster. But I always say to my actors that nobody in real life thinks that they are a monster, they’re only trying to mask pain and insecurity. And I think that Beverly is desperately unfulfilled, with no children, having given up her job. And desperately unsuited to life as a suburban housewife… I mean, she can’t even cook. And so she’s trying to micromanage what little she does have control of.
Mike Leigh is famous for his improvisations… do you encourage your actors to improvise? Well, Mike encouraged his actors to improvise in order to come up with the original script, which is what we are working from. We have made some minor tweaks, which he’s approved. And we’ll make some more. One thing we’ll do is to improvise a scene to work out what happens when the two male characters, Tony and Laurence, go offstage to investigate what’s going on at the teenage party down the road. How, for example, did Tony get wet? The audience won’t see this, but we need them to be able to smell the tension between those two actors, when they come back.
I understand you have a family connection with the Theatre Royal in Brighton… My grandfather, David Land, bought the theatre in 1984, when I was 14. I watched play after play there: I saw Lauren Bacall, and Charlton Heston, and Deborah Kerr. It’s full of ghosts for me, in a very positive way. It’ll be something of a homecoming.
Theatre Royal, Jan 10th-19th.