Watching the TV version of Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh 40 years after its debut on stage at the Hampstead Theatre in 1977, followed by the televised version as a Play For Today on the BBC later that year, is an unnerving experience.
The things that seemed funny back then have acquired a darker edge, and the work has become a play for this day in ways that we couldn’t have anticipated.
The play, which was ‘devised’ by Mike Leigh, takes place at the home of Beverly and Laurence, who are having a drinks party to welcome their new neighbours, Angela and Tony, and their longer-standing neighbour Sue. Sue is there to escape the party which her 15-year-old daughter Abigail is holding at their house.
At the time, Abigail’s Party sparked loads of water-cooler discussions, as we didn’t call them in those days, mainly focusing on the toe-curling awfulness of Beverly.
How we enjoyed the series of illustrations which place her firmly below the class to which she aspires — putting the red wine in the fridge, taking pride in being a two-toilet household and in having ‘silver-plate’ cutlery, liking tacky art and itemising the spirits available from their bar.
Her way of speaking is both fascinating and grating. In her high-pitched nasal whine (which actor Alison Steadman has surely trademarked) Beverly gives weight to banalities with a liberal sprinkling of ‘actually’, ‘that’s it’, ‘to tell you the truth’, ‘let me put it to you this way’ and a persistent use of people’s names to secure their attention.
The play nails the nervy jockeying for social position as the two couples talk about house prices and desirable appliances (how unlike our own preoccupations) and attempt to ‘place’ each other through their occupations.
Lawrence, an estate agent, is in ‘business’; Tony is ‘in computers’, or as his wife Angela says in a put-down she likes so much she says it twice, he’s only a ‘computer operator’ (just in case he might be mistaken for Tim Berners-Lee).
Angela is proud of having moved from being a house-renter to a house-owner. She works as a nurse and is trying to make ends meet, as illustrated by her references to the mortgage and her recommendation of the tastiness and economy of pilchard curry. Her adulation of Queen Bee Beverly and Beverly’s casual patronisation of her acolyte (not to mention her appropriation of Angela’s husband) is a familiar dynamic, as painful now as it was then.
On first acquaintance, Lawrence is a pretentious git. In social terms, he gets it mind-numbingly wrong. He asks questions like ‘Do you read?’ and ‘Do you like art?’ and he puts Beethoven on the record-player. He has a beautifully-bound set of Shakespeare, which of course he doesn’t read (hands up everyone who ostentatiously displays their copy of Infinite Jest or whatever text which only two people in the universe have ever read right through), and he has a Van Gogh print on the wall about which he delivers a mini-lecture.
How we scoffed, as if we owned original masterpieces. Oh my, was that an early instance of the liberal, educated elite mocking those who had not enjoyed their privileges? From a kinder perspective, Lawrence could be seen as similar to Beatie in Arnold Wesker’s Roots or Rita in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, people whose access to a different culture could only be acquired through pain and effort.
Social anxiety, class markers, identity through commodities, cultural tribes, linguistic subterfuge — thank heavens we’re not like that nowadays.
Mike Leigh’s characters are human and vulnerable. We recognise bits of ourselves in them. But it’s really hard to like them, because their behaviour to each other is so vile. There is no thoughtfulness, no kindness in their interactions.
Beverly’s constant references to what might be going on at the party next door, garnished with observations about teenage pregnancy, increase Sue’s anxiety (although to be fair, what planet is Sue living on? What does she think happens at a teenage party?)
Angela, psychologically bullied by Abigail and trying to hold her own, treats the divorced Sue to a barrage of insensitive comments and questions. Oh what a coincidence, she and Tony have been married for three years and Sue has been divorced for three years! How nice that Sue’s ex-husband’s new wife has a ready-made family in Sue’s children! Did Sue’s husband have a moustache? Angela’s comment that Tony has threatened to sellotape her mouth is a shocking eruption of violence; even more shocking is our complicit, instinctive laugh.
Psychological violence and physical violence simmer beneath the surface. The room vibrates with suppressed hatred, barely disguised by the couple’s marital sniping and mutual, public put-downs.
Some productions of Abigail’s Party update the references, which seems unnecessary. The play is more than a period piece and it updates itself.
In contemporary terms, we know which newspapers and news sources each character is likely to consume. We can hear the conversations between the Laurences who dislike the new ‘cosmopolitan’ flavour of their neighbourhood, and the Sues who like it. We can guess at their politics. We can guess how they vote.
The play highlights the divisions and insecurities, the uncertainties about place and identity which characterise contemporary social debate. Its very funny surface only just disguises the unease beneath, an unease which cries out for the kind of acceptance, understanding and emotional intelligence which is so conspicuously lacking in the play’s fictional characters and in much present-day discourse as well.