Reworking of a modern stage classic coming to Hull

New season: Abigail's Party is part of the forthcoming season at Hull Truck.
New season: Abigail's Party is part of the forthcoming season at Hull Truck.
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Abigail’s Party is at the heart of Hull Truck’s new season. Nick Ahad spoke to director and Change Maker Amanda Huxtable.

Hull Truck’s new season, announced this week, contained something of a surprise in that one of the productions was absolutely not surprising.

Since being revealed to the world in 1977, Abigail’s Party has become – well, to call it a theatrical stalwart would be to do it a disservice. I’ve seen several productions of the Mike Leigh classic. In fact, though this may be the memory playing tricks, I think I’ve seen it in every producing theatre in Yorkshire over the past decade and a half (again, that may be exaggeration). And now Hull Truck, thanks to Change Maker Amanda Huxtable (I’ll return to the Change Maker label), is reviving it once again. The play is clearly more Lazarus than Laurence.

Why is Huxtable reviving Abigail’s Party? “I love the play. I read a lot of scripts, classics and new works from Caribbean, African, American and European canons and held a script discover day where dramaturg and director Ola Animashawun and fellow director Moji Kareem were invited to join the team here at Hull Truck Theatre to discuss my shortlist. None made it through in the end, and I went back to the drawing board looking for a play that had exceptional writing, had resonance for our current precarious times and would make for a good night out. Abigail’s Party fit the bill.”

The reason the play is a surprise in this context is because of that Change Maker label Huxtable has attached to her person. An Arts Council initiative to support the development of black, minority ethnic and disabled cultural leaders, the Change Makers are playing a pivotal role in challenging the homogeneity that sits atop our cultural institutions.

Huxtable says: “There have been twenty of us up and down the country representing many art forms including theatre, exploring our cultural leadership and supporting venues with their work towards inclusion and diversity. We are based in theatre venues, galleries and museums over a period of two years.

“The remit was to identify and champion leaders who are currently underrepresented in leadership roles, whether that be on the boards, as chief executives or artistic directors. When I first saw the criteria to apply, I recognised the opportunity to both share and learn from the experience. Thankfully, my work here at Hull Truck Theatre has been a positive and empowering experience.” Sorry to sound like a broken record, but why, then, Abigail’s Party? It’s a wonderful play, but you’d be hard pushed to find a less ‘diverse’ story than one set in the suburbs of 1970s Britain. As a Change Maker, didn’t Huxtable, I respectfully suggest, have a duty to find a different story with a different voice to Alison Steadman circa 1977? Huxtable disagrees: “Our country could do with a good long look at itself and its history. This most recent history is fascinating to me because I believe this time was a crucial moment in our political and cultural history. I’m certain the themes of gender and class raised in the play could be weighed in any era, but it is the language of the time and the life experiences, including race, that we will be exploring with our version at Hull Truck Theatre.”

There’s the nub of it. Huxtable is going to shift the racial make-up we usually see in the characters in Abigail’s Party. “It gives me the opportunity to put the principles of inclusion that I believe in into this play. If you stand by inclusion, then it could have been any given play as long as you have a passion to tell that story. I knew that placing the neighbours Angela and Tony as a Black couple newly moved into the street made sense to me.

“Angela is a nurse and Tony is quietly having a nightmare having been invited, which is exactly as it would have been for my Mum and Dad in the unlikely event of them being invited all those years ago,” says the director. Suddenly, it makes sense. Taking such a quintessentially British story and viewing it through this lens makes a lot more sense to the Britain of 2018. “I’m really honoured that we were able to gain the licence for me to direct this classic and well-loved story. It’s easy to be intimidated, but I’ve decided not to be and to stick with the love for this play.” Abigail’s Party is just one production announced this week by Hull Truck in its new season which includes a number of visiting productions and home-grown fare including Deborah McAndrew’s return after last year’s warmly received A Christmas Carol. This year McAndrew is bringing Oliver Twist to the festive stage and the Fringe First Award winning A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad). The positive thing, though, is that much of the new season’s efforts appear concentrated on an unsurprising surprising play called Abigail’s Party.

Other shows in the season:

Soho Cinders (September 4-8): Hessle Theatre Company presents Soho Cinders, an edgy celebration of London’s most colourful district.

Ensemble 52 (November 6-10): Dark Winter, adaptation of David Mark’s crime novel set in Hull.

Drip (November 8-9): A one-man musical comedy from Script Club and Boundless Theatre, written by Hull’s Tom Wells with music by Matthew Robins. The story follows 15-year-old Liam, who has just signed up for Bev Road Baths’ first ever synchronised swimming team. There’s just one problem: Liam can’t swim.

Full details at www.hulltruck.co.uk