This is a British cult classic. The phenomenon originates in 1977, with the BBC's Play for Today. Written by Mike Leigh, starring Alison Steadman, Tim Stern, Janine Duvitski, John Salthouse, and Harriet Reynolds. The original Hampstead Theatre production, which was filmed and broadcast without editing, drew a huge audience of 17 million. Since then, the play has been performed sporadically. In 2002, however, it saw something of a comeback, beginning with a well-received production in Bath.
We're in the front room of 13 Richmond Road, North London. It's 1977. Beverley and Laurence have invited three neighbours round to their house for drinks and nibbles. The drinks are gin and tonics, and the nibbles are cheese and pineapple forced onto a cocktail stick.
An introduction to the characters:
- Beverley is our hostess. She is the alpha female of the soirée and delights in torturing and belittling her guests and her husband. Her drunkenness makes her middle class veneer slip and reveals her working class roots. She hates Laurence.
- Laurence is Beverley's estate agent husband of three years, who is embarrassingly proud of the fact that he can afford to buy himself a new car every year. He hates Beverley and openly dislikes Tony.
- Angela is the wimpy new neighbour. She is socially inept and less attractive than the other female characters. She is too ditsy to hate anyone.
- Tony is Angela's husband. He is a former professional footballer, and has now been reduced to the status of a computer operator. His bitterness may explain his willingness to accommodate Beverly's obnoxious advances. He hates Angela and has a clear disregard for Laurence
- Sue is the only unmarried member of the mismatched group. She has recently divorced from her husband. She is the concerned mother of the eponymous Abigail. Her distaste for her vulgar or naive neighbours is not hidden too well. She hates more or less everybody.
Sue's daughter, Abigail is a fifteen-year-old punk, which explains both the pounding music coming from nextdoor, and her mother's presence on stage. Abigail is something of a Godot in that she never appears on stage, yet her character is felt throughout the play. Her mother worries about her, and the likely happenings in the neighbouring house. What's more, the suggestions of the debauchery at the real party emphasise just how staid and false the drinks and nibbles gathering is.
Alcohol is the catalyst for the evening's events, just as in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It is only after a few gin and tonics that Beverley plucks up the courage to come on to Tony. She forces him into two awkward, and rather raunchy, dances, while the other guests sit uncomfortably and try not to watch. As the hostess drinks more, her brashness becomes more apparent. She has no qualms telling Angela just how to apply her makeup. She slips happily into her bossy persona - variously instructing the men to move the sofa, to push-start a car, and to check up on Abigail's party. She claims to have no need for feminism - she gets by just fine as she is.
What makes Albee's play work so excruciatingly well is the emphasis on ageing, and the conflict this causes between the characters. In the British translation, Mike Leigh calls upon the English class system to convey the clash on stage. Bev is proud of her downstairs loo, which was undoubtedly one of the markers of success in 1970s England. Laurence brings out his complete works of Shakespeare (with gold binding) to impress Sue. It is something of a gaffe when he states "of course, they're not for reading". Angela, meanwile, is in awe of her hosts' brown velour three piece suite. Tony is led by his baser instincts, and fails to be impressed by either Bev's knicknacks or Laurence's library. Sue tries her best to be polite to all the party-goers, yet her status prevents her from stooping to their games of one-upmanship.
Another parallel with Virginia Woolf can be found in the sexual undertones of the play. The most obvious example in Leigh's production is the interaction between Bev and Tony. She has been married to her husband for only three years, yet they have already lost interest in one another. She clings onto her femininity by flirting with the only man present to whom she is not married. Being the forceful woman she is, she convinces Tony to dance with her twice, much to the bemusement and embarrassement of the other characters, not least Laurence. Angela is too dim and meek to object, much like Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Sue, the only single woman present, is only targetted on a faux-intellectual level. Despite the fact that Beverley claims to disapprove of feminism, she is clearly the character in control of the evening's events, right until the very end.
There's an ending which pulls the whole piece together, and puts everyone in their place; revealing their true characters.
Abigail's Party is ranked 11th in the British Film Institute's 100 greatest television programmes of all time. It can also be found in the Radio Times poll to find the top 40 greatest TV shows on British television, published in August 2003.
- The wonderful production at the Theatre Royal in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent which got me hooked.