Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh

Review by Annabel

‘Little top-up?’

Ever since Alison Steadman playing Beverly uttered those words when Abigail’s Party aired on TV in 1977, they entered into the vernacular of my family. My mum used the phrase regularly, applying it to second helpings across the board. Now, arguably a grown-up in my 50s, I find myself using it too!

We had watched Abigail’s Party together: it aired in the BBC’s Play for Today slot, which was famous for producing some of that era’s most influential and intellectually stimulating television. I was seventeen, and can honestly say that Abigail’s Party remains one of the best programmes I have ever seen. I own the DVD, and rewatching it to help write this, was transported back to the 1970s, reliving all its strained bonhomie and shocking conclusion.

Abigail’s Party started out in the theatre earlier that year and now, on its fortieth anniversary, Penguin have reprinted the original script with a new introduction by Leigh. The cover is replete with a wallpaper design in those ochred tones that graced so many a feature wall back then; yes, our kitchen/diner had something similar – in wipe-clean vinyl of course!

Laurence and Beverly have invited the neighbours in for drinks and nibbles. A young couple, Angela and Tony, have just moved in a few houses away, and Susan has been invited to take refuge from her fifteen-year-old daughter Abigail’s birthday party. Abigail is a title character who is notable for her complete physical absence from the play.

As it starts, Beverly is getting the lounge ready, it’s divided from the kitchen by a 1970s room-divider, so all the action takes place in one set. Laurence rushes in from work (he’s an estate agent), and has forgotten to buy the beer. He also still has to chase up keys that haven’t been returned, he’s stressed from the outset, whereas beautician Beverly is sashaying around in her maxi dress, getting in the mood for far too many gin and tonics, positioning the cheese and pineapple sticks, checking the cigarette box Is just so.

Laurence goes off to get the beers, and the guests arrive. As relative newlyweds, you can tell that Angela is looking up to Beverly as the epitome of sophistication – 1970s style. Ange, as Beverly calls her, is voluble, gushing, the opposite of her taciturn husband Tony. Susan is very different; for a start she’s divorced, but she’s also educated – and a housewife. She is polite, but ill at ease in this company.

We’re all set for an excruciating evening! Laurence is still not back, and Beverly is being the hostess with the mostess offering round the nibbles and fags and chatting away. They’re talking about Susan’s kids…

ANGELA: Would you like kids?

BEVERLY: No, I don’t think I would, actually. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like kids, ‘cos I do, but let me put it to you this way: I wouldn’t like to actually have to have them. I mean – did you have your kids in a hospital, Sue?

SUSAN: Yes.

ANGELA: Did you have an easy labour?

SUSAN: Well… Abigail was really very difficult. But Jeremy was fine. He was born very quickly.

BEVERLY: Yes, you see, to me, having to go into hospital would be like being ill, and I couldn’t stand that. And I know it sounds horrible, but all that breast-feeding, and having to change nappies, would make me heave. I don’t honestly think I’ve got that motherly instinct in me.

The irony was that Alison Steadman playing Beverly, and married to Mike Leigh at the time, was pregnant!

The evening progresses, Laurence finally returns. He and Tony pop down the road to check on the party for Susan. The women continue their stilted conversations and Beverly keeps topping everyone up, so much so that Susan is unwell.

Beverly is beginning to get quite drunk – and out comes her favourite record – she wants to dance. This is where the stage play had to differ from the TV – they couldn’t get the permissions. Laurence doesn’t want to listen to Jose Feliciano, he wants James Galway (the Irish popular classic flautist):

BEVERLY: Laurence, Angela like Feliciano. Tony likes Feliciano, I like Feliciano, and Sue would like to hear Feliciano: so please: d’you think we could have Feliciano on?

LAURENCE: Yes.

In the TV version, they used Demis Roussos instead, who topped the UK charts in 1976 with his warbling falsetto hit Forever and Ever. That song is forever welded to Beverly smooching with Tony in my memory, and for me it was an inspired substitution for the jazzier Feliciano.

The evening continues to make the watcher squirm, as Beverly and Laurence continue to try to score points off each other (and their neighbours) until it reaches a shocking climax, of which I can say no more.

Beverly and Laurence are both aspiring, both pretentious in their own different ways. Laurence longs for intellectual stimulation, whereas Beverly is consumer-orientated, being delighted with her rotisserie, which she hasn’t actually used yet. They’re not monsters, but they can be monstrous. Leigh’s skill is in making it all feel just a little too close to home, which can make you feel guilty in laughing so much.

Leigh’s introduction makes for fascinating reading. He is often asked whether the play is about the state of the nation?  He argues no – rather it’s about the transition one goes through into doing ‘The Done Thing’, something he was concerned about in his own life, ‘although we two were hardly Beverly and Laurence’. He’s right too, for if this play were to be written now, many of the concerns would be the same. ‘The Done Thing’ is still at large today.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors, she never took to Demis Roussos.

Mike Leigh, Abigail’s Party (Penguin, 2017) paperback, 63 pages.

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