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 which coincided with Margaret Thatcher becoming leader of the Conservative Party and later, the Prime Minister. The play developed in lengthy improvisations during which Leigh explored the characters with the actors, but did not always reveal the incidents that would occur during the play.
Set in a theoretical Romford according to Leigh, Beverly invites her new neighbours, Angela and Tony, who moved into the area recently, over for drinks. She has also invited her neighbour Sue, divorced for three years, whose fifteen-year-old daughter Abigail is having 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 fashion 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.
First, an admission. I’ve never liked the play. The only genuine middle-class character, Sue, looks on at the antics of the two couples with disdain although Jo Castleton gives an outstanding and restrained performance in the role. I find the play uncomfortable to watch as the writing seems to poke fun at everything it can about the aspirational working class. They eat cheesy-pineapples and olives, drink Bacardi and Coke and pronounce the ‘j’ in Majorca suggesting they are desperately trying to be more sophisticated than their working class backgrounds would allow.
London Classic Theatre uses its extensive experience to make the most of the play with pacy direction from Michael Cabot and an outstanding set and costume design by Bek Palmer. The role of Beverly will always be strongly associated with Alison Steadman and Rebecca Birch gives a strong performance as the bored and mischievously sexual hostess although she needs to slow her rapid-fire delivery. Alice De-Warrenne is humorous as next door neighbour Angela however she does slip into caricature slightly especially in the second act. Both Birch and De-Warrenne seem relatively sober at the end of Act One and yet despite the continuous timeline are both paralytic at the beginning of Act Two.
As Laurence and Tony respectively, Tom Richardson and George Readshaw give more polished performances. Richardson needs to show more anger at the start of the play although his demise is genuinely shocking and harrowing.
Overall, this is a competent production of a play that seems very dated in today’s society although class division and snobbery towards the working classes in particular often rears its ugly head. We never meet Abigail or witness her party but surely with the play having been written in 1977 and with her being described as having pink hair there should have been a lot more punk music.
Reviewer: Patric Kearns
Photo: Sheila Burnett