Review: Abigail’s Party and Abi, Derby Theatre

Derby Theatre’s RETOLD series of one-woman plays is an ingenious idea by its artist director Sarah Brigham where she commissions new writing to sit alongside a classic play that we know and love. Her aim is to get more female writers actors and creatives on to the stage.

The fourth in the series is a contemporary response to Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, set bang up-to-date in the present day – 40 years on from the 70s satire of suburbia.

Abi is a quick-witted, penetrating production with a central character played by a sharp and savvy Safiyya Ingar. 

Writer Atiha Sen Gupta has more than met the challenge set her by Brigham and has created a commanding play that studies the post-millennial world through the life of Abigail’s mixed-race granddaughter Abisheera (Abi for short).

It is not essential that you have seen Abigail’s Party to enjoy Abi as it will easily stand alone as an absorbing drama – especially for teenagers – but it would help, because the back story to Abi’s life is set firmly in Leigh’s state-of-the-nation play. 

Sen Gupta and Brigham have jumped a generation and, as in the original, Abigail remains a faceless character in hospital with terminal cancer. Abi, herself now 15 as her ‘Nan’ was back in 1977, is preparing for a teenage party of her own in her grandmother’s home.

As she energetically prepares the music and lighting, fills bowls with peanuts and lines up the alcohol on the 70s drinks cabinet she ponders life in the 21st century – boys, dating apps, swiping right and sex, the casual racism she encounters, her weight and body image pressure from her peers.

The big reveal comes as she sorts through her Nan’s keepsakes and uncovers a secret that links us back to the excruciating party thrown by the indomitable hostess Beverly in 1977.

Even if you have seen Abigail’s Party before it is definitely worth seeing the revival of the play directed by Douglas Rintoul which is being shown alongside this spin-off production. 

Melanie Gutteridge is utterly brilliant as the gin-drinking bully Beverly with her gawdy, backless dress and bright orange wedges. 

The production, which was faithful to the first with no annoying adaptations, had a magnificent 70s set complete with shag-pile carpet, geometric wallpaper, lava lamps and a marvellous coffee table. It certainly brought back some memories for much of the audience. 

All recognisable middle-class life is here and although 40 years have passed sadly it seems little else has changed. A fact which, quite frankly, makes you squirm in your theatre seat. Social climbing has merely become the social mobility of today and domestic abuse is no less of an issue.

But let’s not get too melancholy, cringe-worthy though it is Abigail’s Party is  an absolute scream and a great way to lead you into the new work Abi. Watch it first and then make certain you go and see Safiyya Ingar perform.

Both shows can be seen until October 20 at Derby Theatre. For tickets click here.

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