Abigail's Party is a play for stage and television, devised and directed in 1977 by Mike Leigh. It is a suburban situation comedy of manners, and a satire on the aspirations and tastes of the new middle class that emerged in Britain in the 1970s. The play developed in lengthy improvisations during which Mike Leigh explored the characters with the actors, but did not always reveal the incidents that would occur during the play. The production opened in April 1977 at the Hampstead Theatre, and returned after its initial run in the summer of 1977, for 104 performances in all. A recording was arranged at the BBC as a Play for Today, produced by Margaret Matheson for BBC Scotland and transmitted in November 1977.
Abigail's Party UK DVD cover
|Written by||Mike Leigh|
|Date premiered||April 1977|
|Place premiered||Hampstead Theatre|
The stage play was first performed at the Hampstead Theatre on 18 April 1977, enjoying great success, leading to a revival over the summer of that year, which was another sellout.
The television version was abridged from over two hours to 104 minutes; the record played by Beverly in the original stage production was "Light My Fire" by José Feliciano and in the TV production it was the 1976 hit "Forever and Ever" by Demis Roussos – Leigh had to replace nearly all the music with artists recorded on British labels, for copyright reasons, in case the BBC sold the play to the United States. As José Feliciano became Demis Roussos, so Elvis Presley gave way to Tom Jones. Other music used in the BBC production included "Love to Love You Baby" by Donna Summer (sung here by Clare Torry) and a piece of library music by Robert Farnon entitled "Blue Theme".
The BBC version was a film of a play, rather than a film in its own right, about which Leigh commented:
The first thing I’d say is, this is not a film. And not only that: for a film-maker, it’s a work of deep embarrassment and pain. There is no piece of work for which I have been responsible as director by which I’m embarrassed, apart from Abigail’s Party. Not for the play or its content [...] It is a stage play that was wheeled into a television studio. It’s slightly compromised as a play, but not too seriously. However, as a piece of craft, it’s simply appalling.
The original production starred Alison Steadman as Beverly, and Tim Stern as her husband Laurence. They are holding a drinks party for their new neighbours, Angela (Janine Duvitski) and her husband Tony (John Salthouse). They also invite Susan (Thelma Whiteley), another neighbour. Abigail herself is never seen—she is Susan's 15-year-old daughter, who is holding her first teenager party next door. For the television version, the original cast reprised their roles, with the exception of Thelma Whiteley, who was replaced by Harriet Reynolds.
Each of the original cast largely devised the back story to their character. John Salthouse brought his early career as a footballer with Crystal Palace to that of Tony. According to Leigh, discussions at the improvised sessions included whether Beverly's name should have a third "e" or not. The most complex relationship was worked out between Angela and Tony. Little of this is disclosed during the narrative, although something of it becomes apparent when Angela steps in to care first for Sue, then the stricken Laurence, and the centre of power between the couple starts to shift noticeably.
- Beverly Moss
- An ex-department store cosmetics demonstrator, "a quondam beautician", she has failed her driving test three times. During the play, she flirts with Tony and is always trying to impress her guests. She considers her taste in music (Jose Feliciano/Demis Roussos, Tom Jones) and art (kitsch erotica) to be every bit as good as that of her husband. Immensely proud of her home, she nonetheless admits that she cannot use the gadgets in her kitchen. Throughout the night, Beverly offers her guests drinks and cigarettes (despite the fact that Tony and Angela have recently given up), which they usually refuse but end up taking due to her being unable to take no for an answer. Beverly effectively forces her guests to agree with her on most topics, for instance on the music they should listen to, or whether olives should be served, in each instance using their apparent consensus to score points with her husband. Despite her "sophisticated" tastes and carefully groomed appearance, she was described by Alan Bennett as having "shoulders like a lifeguard, and a walk to match." According to the critic Michael Coveney; "Beverly is undoubtedly a monster. But she is also a deeply sad and vulnerable monster… The whole point about Beverly is that she is childless, and there is a sense in which that grotesque exterior carapace is a mask of inner desolation."
- Interviewed in 2012, Steadman said of the play, "Overnight, that piece was incredibly powerful. ... They were very strong, identifiable characters. We laugh at them because we say, 'Oh my God, I know that person, thank goodness I'm not like that', and you cringe, but you know they're true. We can safely sit in the comfort of our living rooms or theatre seats and laugh our heads off. But we've perhaps all got a bit of Beverly in us." In a 2017 piece written for The Guardian, Leigh described Beverly as "an aspirational working class girl who is totally preoccupied with appearances and received notions of behaviour and taste. A bundle of contradictions, she espouses the idea of people freely enjoying themselves, yet endlessly bullies everybody into doing what she wrongly thinks they'll enjoy, or what is good for them. But, while she may be perceived as monstrous, she is in fact vulnerable, insecure and sad".
- Laurence Moss
- Estate agent with "Wibley Webb". Laurence is Beverly's husband, and the pair frequently argue. He aspires to the finer things in life: leather-bound Shakespeare (which he thinks "can't be read"), prints of Van Gogh and Lowry paintings, and Beethoven, which he forces on his guests at unfortunate moments. He seems powerless to compete with Beverly's more flamboyant persona, and compensates by working too much, as his wife points out on several occasions. He considers a brisk handshake to be correct etiquette after a dance. While Laurence starts off behaving normally during the party, as he becomes increasingly hen-pecked by his wife, he begins to act in a more neurotic manner, to the point where he too becomes an annoyance to his guests. While Susan welcomes the increasing "cosmopolitanism" of the area, Laurence does not.
- Tony Cooper
- Tony works in computing—merely as a computer operator, his wife twice points out—and used to play professional football for Crystal Palace but it "didn't work out". Tony is quiet throughout most of the play, usually appearing uneasy and giving one-word answers, but towards the end he becomes somewhat irate and quick-tempered, particularly with his wife. Beverly flirts with him in the second half of the play, much to Laurence's annoyance. At one point, Beverly asks Angela if he is violent. "No, he's not violent. Just a bit nasty. Like, the other day, he said to me, he'd like to sellotape my mouth. And that's not very nice, is it?" "It certainly isn't, Ange!" replies Beverly. Leigh later attributed Tony's aggression to an underlying shyness and self-consciousness. The surname Cooper was not mentioned in the original script or teleplay, and is taken from a picture on the Mike Leigh at the BBC DVD box set.
- Angela Cooper
- Tony's wife. A nurse, Angela appears very meek and somewhat childlike, unintelligent and tactless (much like Steadman's character in a previous Leigh play, Nuts in May). She cannot drive; Tony does not wish her to do so. Interested in the mundane and commonplace, much to her husband's annoyance, she comes into her own when Sue feels queasy and after Laurence suffers a heart attack. Leigh noted that "underneath Angela's apparent silliness is the tough, practical reliability of an experienced working nurse".
- Susan Lawson
- Sue was getting divorced at the same time the other characters were getting married, as pointed out by Angela. A quiet character who does not really have the courage to say no, she is the only woman visibly not "dressed-up" for the gathering; clearly, she would rather be elsewhere. Throughout the play, Laurence attempts to find common ground with her. As originally cast, she towers over the diminutive Laurence, and Beverly's exhortations for her to dance with him only compound her awkwardness. Sue's 15-year old daughter Abigail is holding the party from which the play's title is derived. Her 11-year old son Jeremy has gone to stay elsewhere. Sue appears to be anxious about the party, and at one point is sick in the bathroom.
The terrain is "the London side of Essex", "theoretical Romford" according to Leigh. Beverly Moss invites her new neighbours, Angela and Tony, who moved into the road just two weeks ago, over for drinks. She has also invited her neighbour Susan (Sue), divorced for three years, whose fifteen-year-old daughter Abigail is holding a party at home. Beverly's husband Laurence comes home late from work, just before the guests arrive. The gathering starts off in a stiff, insensitive, British middle-class way as the virtual strangers tentatively gather, until Beverly and Laurence start sniping at each other. As Beverly serves more drinks and the alcohol takes effect, Beverly flirts more and more overtly with Tony, as Laurence sits impotently by. After a tirade when Beverly insists on showing off her kitsch print Wings of Love, Laurence suffers a fatal heart attack.
Beverly, Tony and, to a lesser extent Angela, all speak with an accent centred on Essex or Estuary English. Laurence's accent, more non-descript and less regional, makes him sound slightly more educated, while Sue's is much nearer to Received Pronunciation.
Sue represents the middle class, being the ex-wife of an architect and living in one of the older houses on the street. She also brings a bottle of wine, and has not yet eaten, indicating that she is expecting dinner, as opposed to an extended evening of drinks. The others present have already had their "tea". Beverly and Laurence represent the aspirational lower middle class, and Tony and Angela—the "new arrivals"—are also lower middle class, but Tony is less successful than Laurence.
Despite their similar background, Laurence seeks to differentiate between himself and Tony by highlighting the differences in their general level of culture, and makes a couple of condescending comments directed at him, and/or for Sue's benefit. For example, Laurence shows off a leather-bound collected works of Shakespeare to Sue (which we know are unread), after pointedly asking Tony if he reads, insinuating that he does not.
In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, Abigail's Party was placed 11th. It also appeared in a Radio Times poll to find the top 40 greatest TV shows on British television, published in August 2003.
Some critics, such as Tom Paulin, have responded more negatively, saying that Abigail's Party appears to represent a middle-class schadenfreude, with the only true middle-class character, Sue, looking on at the antics of the couples with disdain. Likewise, Dennis Potter wrote a critical review of the play in The Sunday Times, claiming that it was "based on nothing more edifying than rancid disdain, for it is a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes". Leigh has rejected this, describing it as a tragi-comedy which is "sympathetic to all the characters, whatever their foibles, not least Beverly... The play is a lamentation, not a sneer". He has also argued that the characters (Beverly and Laurence in particular) reflected the real-life behaviour of aspiring couples in mid-1970s suburbia.
Interviewed in 2009, writer Leigh said: "Of course I recognise the enduring popularity of Abigail's Party. It still hits a nerve about the way we live. It's real even though it's apparently a heightened and comic play. It's a reflection of the realities of how we live on several different levels. It's about aspirationalism and materialism, love and relationships. Like much of my work, it's about the disease I call 'the done thing' – basically, keeping up with the Joneses. It's actually quite a complex play. People may not analyse its complexity but it's so popular precisely for that reason."
In March 2012, a new revival of the play directed by Lindsay Posner opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Starring Jill Halfpenny as Beverly, Joe Absolom as Tony, Natalie Casey as Angela, Susannah Harker as Sue and Andy Nyman as Laurence, it subsequently transferred to Wyndham's Theatre in the West End. Commenting on the character, Halfpenny said, "To her mind Beverley isn't a monster and even warrants sympathy. "When you learn about her upbringing – her mother and father haven't spoken to her for 20 years – you see why a woman who's been brought up like that and carries so many insecurities could take them out on others."
In March 2017, a new revival of Abigail's Party opened at the Theatre Royal Bath as a 40th anniversary production, starring Amanda Abbington as Beverly, Ciarán Owens as Tony, Charlotte Mills as Angela, Rose Keegan as Sue, and Ben Caplan as Laurence.
- Leigh, Mike (24 February 2017). "Mike Leigh on Abigail's Party at 40: 'I was sure it would sink without trace'". theguardian.com. Retrieved 24 February 2017.
- "Play for Today (TV Series) | Abigail's Party (1977) | Trivia", IMDb
- Leigh, Mike; Raphael, Amy (2008). Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh. London: Faber and Faber. p. 110. ISBN 9780571204694.
- Coveney, p.119-120
- "Alison Steadman: We've all got a bit of Beverly in us". Telegraph.co.uk. 8 April 2012. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
- Coveney, p.116
- "Programmes | Newsnight | Review | Abigail's Party". BBC News. 25 July 2002. Retrieved 29 June 2012.
- Thomson, David (21 July 2002). "Mike Leigh: Cruel chronicler of suburbia's nasty secrets and lies". The Independent. Retrieved 20 August 2016.
- Imogen Carter. "Abigail's Party, our free DVD, remains a landmark in TV drama". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
- "Jill Halfpenny: the life and soul of Abigail's Party". Telegraph.co.uk. 22 February 2012. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
- "SF Gate Abigail's Party". Retrieved 14 May 2014.