by Lynn on April 30, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, Toronto, Ont. Written by Mike Leigh. Directed by John Shooter. Set by George Quan. Costumes by Amanda Wong. Lighting by Joseph Patrick. Sound by Aaron Bernstein. Starring: Claire Burns, Anna Hardwick, Dylan Roberts, Cody Ray Thompson, Astrid Van Wieren.

Produced by Precisely Peter Productions. Plays at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace until May 3.

A deceptive comedy that is full of sadness, anger, aggression, sexual frustration and loneliness. It’s a raucous production directed by John Shooter with a riveting, aching performance by Astrid Van Wieren.

The Story. Beverly is throwing a party for her neighbours. Lawrence is Beverly’s harried husband. He is a real estate agent who has aggravation at work. The neighbours are Tony and Angela who have recently moved to the neighbourhood. Tony is a computer programmer. Angela is a nurse. They have been married three years. Sue is divorced and lives on the street with her teenaged daughter Angela. Angela is also having her own party and she doesn’t want her mother there, so Sue comes to Beverly’s party.

Beverly is an overbearingly, perky, lively woman who has dressed in a slinky dress to make a statement to her husband, the women guests and Tony, the one other man, not her husband. Beverly foists drinks on her guests and ignores them if they say they don’t want any more. The ‘food’ for the party is meagre: potato chips (crisps in England where the play is taking place), and pineapple bits with cheese on toothpicks. Beverly doesn’t seem to work.

Beverly never misses an opportunity to put Lawrence down in public. She is bossy, pushy and rude. Lawrence for all he has to endure from her is a better host. He is interested in what his guests want and backs off when they don’t want something.

As the drinks flow cracks appear in the relationship of Tony and Angela. He is mostly silent and glum. She is more and more boisterous as she drinks more and more. Tony is irritated by his wife’s prattling. She takes shots at him as well for some inequity or other. Sue is uptight; awkward in that company; worried at what is going on at home—we can hear the throbbing of the music coming from Sue’s house up the street.

The Production. The production is directed by John Shooter, new to Toronto from London, England. He knew that the first show he wanted to direct here was Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. It’s been produced a few times in London and televised.

I haven’t seen the tiny stage of the Backspace of Theatre Passe Muraille look so ‘sumptuous’ as it does in George Quan’s set. There is a ‘leather’ couch with comfy chairs on either side of a table; a wall divider full of every kind of liquor bottle; a separate eating area by the upstage wall. Somebody in that house has a bit of taste. We learn it’s Lawrence. Beverly likes to think she has taste, but she’s so obvious in trying to foist herself on people, she has no room for taste. That would mean she would have to think of someone other than herself and she doesn’t. As Beverly, Anna Hardwick has a hard accent and puts a lot of effort into showing Beverly’s overbearing attitudes. Hardwick does do the job of making Beverly obnoxious—perhaps a bit more subtlety could have been effective. The harried, put upon Lawrence is played by an energetic Dylan Roberts. Mr. Roberts has a nice way of showing how Lawrence has had to control his temper with his twit of a wife. You can see the slow build of Lawrence’s fury to the inevitable and startling conclusion in Roberts’ performance. As Angela, Claire Burns assumes a voice that can cut glass and wears a pair of oversized glasses that are initially funny but eventually unwieldy. She has an interesting sense of the humour of Angela and a steeliness when dealing with her sullen, mainly silent husband Tony. As Tony, Cody Ray Thompson is saddled with a terrible 1970s shaggy wig that is unfortunate—it looks funny on him, but surely there is a better way of getting a laugh. Thompson has that wonderful look of a bored man; slumped in the chair, legs splayed, watching the goings on, drinking to ease the discomfort of being there. He conveys his monosyllables of dialogue in a flat, deep voice that speaks volumes.

The most varied, subtle, nuanced and compelling performance is Astrid Van Wieren as Sue. Sue is constantly straightening her perfectly straightened skirt as awkward people often do. Perhaps it’s something to do with her hands. Sue hears everything being said and reacts to it with a pained, uncomfortable reaction. For much of the play her dialogue is little more than “Yes, thank you.” “No, thank you.” But there is such variation in each rendering that you see Sue’s world—a failed marriage; a lonely life now; a rebellious daughter she has no control over; her quiet exasperation at trying to get Beverly to back off and failing. It’s a wonderful performance.

John Shooter has directed a respectable production. He has realized the true humour of the play as well as the sad world of the characters in their interactions with each other. Perhaps a bit more attention to bringing out subtleties in performances might be in order, instead of going for the overt obvious.

Comment. Mike Leigh, British film maker, playwright extraordinaire is the chronicler of all things that appear ordinary but under his gaze that ordinariness is heightened. His films are about people going about their day trying to make due; or about people just out of step and can’t catch up and fit in. His plays are too. He writes of situations such as a party that has an undercurrent of anger, meanness, frustration and exploding tempers. While Abigail’s Party premiered in London in 1977, it stands up today because the truths are still viable.

Opened: April 22, 2014
Closes: May 3, 2014
Cast: 5; 2 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours, one intermission.

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