Party that just goes on and on

7th February 2008 at 00:00

Abigail's Party, Bolton Octagon

Asked how he is approaching Abigail's Party, director Nigel E Higginson gives a puzzled look. Ed, as he is affectionately known, has resisted any temptation to fiddle with Abigail's Party. It is, as he says, an actor-led play and should not "look" directed. The director is there to cover practicalities, to ensure that actors come on at all the correct times and don't bump into the furniture.

Mike Leigh's play, nurtured in improvisation by his original actors, is now considered a complete theatrical entity. Theatregoers will expect to see the wonderfully embarrassing Bev played just as Alison Steadman played her because she made that character so complete. A radically different performance would not be telling the truth of the play. There is no other way to play her, no need to alter anything, and that is a view firmly supported by Ann Bryson, who will be playing Bev.

"You can't go through the same process as they originally went through with Mike Leigh . you now have the text. Bev wouldn't exist today, she'd be in therapy so she would be much happier! She's basically a complete control freak who doesn't know how to love or be loved."

Abigail's Party is firmly rooted in the 1970s, set in a new housing estate with essential period props. Updating would be next to impossible - fridge-freezers are no longer exciting and rotisseries are not looked on with the same degree of wonder. Updating would also severely distort the relationships. Bev, as Ed suggested, would now have to have a job. Tony, as I suggested, would have filed for a quickie divorce long ago.

Ed admires Abigail's Party because it hits every nail on the head and it successfully captures the decade in which many sixties teenagers were marrying. Its detailed world will seem even more natural on the Octagon's in-the-round stage, with fewer constraints on actor movement and audiences getting an equal view of characters and situations.

"I admire the banalities, especially from Ange," says Ed. "In everyday life there is a lot of banal chit-chat going on but putting it on stage is very complex. It can sound boring. It doesn't with this play because of the way the play was evolved. There are five characters who are taken from real life and developed. It's not as though a writer has made assumptions; they are people who wouldn't spend a long time together in real life.

"There is no structure which dictates that the people will all match up and as a consequence the banalities work because other people aren't talking in the same banalities. They've all got different ways of speaking."

The characters are thrust into a completely false situation where there are no established social connections: they are largely emerging from the working class and aspiring to the next rung and assuming the manners of the middle classes, but behaving quite badly. Mike Leigh's skill, according to Ed, lies in bringing these disparate characters together and also giving the married couples a reason, however flimsy, for being together.

Their problems are largely brought on by themselves, they are sad people, so does Ed think we should be laughing at them?

"Yes. It's almost a comedy of bad manners. But you cry for them as well, you feel their pain, but I don't know whether you should feel sorry for them . Mike Leigh does force you to examine what you feel about his characters".

Bolton Octagon February 13 to March 15. tel: 01204 520661, fax 01204 380110

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