Once upon a time there was no internet (no really!) So, watching theatre online streamed on demand was not an option. So, what did we do? Well, we watched the telly; more specifically for 14 years we watched the BBC’s Play For Today series which started in 1970 and concentrated on single plays in a variety of genres – and there were literally hundreds of them. For the strand’s 50th anniversary the Beeb is transmitting a number of their surviving programmes (some of the early stuff was wiped) and then putting them up on the iPlayer. I know that quite a few of these are strictly speaking films which don’t fall neatly into the online theatre category, but this is too good an opportunity to miss. In any case Abigail’s Party which premiered in 1977 certainly has its roots in theatre as it was a filmed record of the Hampstead Theatre production which has achieved almost legendary status. And therein lies the problem – how do you write about one of the most iconic plays of the last century without resorting to repetition and cliché? Well, let’s see…
The first thing to remember is that Abigail’s Party was constructed using director Mike Leigh’s famous devised method. Characters are developed through a very long process but nothing is put on paper in the usual way (if you’re interested in Leigh’s methodology this is a good summary). Therefore, Leigh is an organiser, enabler and arbiter rather than a writer and the actors come to inhabit their characters more fully by developing the back story and their narrative arc.
Alison Steadman’s monstrous Beverly is apparently based on a department store beautician who the actor saw humiliating a shopper by telling her loudly that she had applied her lipstick badly; from that seed the self-centred, self-opinionated creation was born. And what a sensational creation she is. Steadman’s every move, every gesture, every look, every vocal intonation speaks volumes about who this person is. It is and has become one of the most imitated (but never bettered) creations for people of a certain age and there is a huge amount of joy to be gained from watching someone at the top of their game give such an assured and consummate performance. If you’re in the very (very) lucky position of never having seen the play before you are in for a real treat. I guess I’ve seen the play at least half a dozen times (and been lucky enough to play Laurence) and it never gets old – even if it actually is.
I was struck this time round by just how superb the rest of the cast are. Janine Duvitski as the gauche Angela has probably never been better and her attention to detail is simply stunning (notice the way her neck chain is too tight causing the heart shaped charm to bob up and down as she speaks – glorious!) Tim Stern as the heart attack waiting to happen which is Laurence wonderfully stokes the fires of Beverley’s scorn and can anyone have got more levels of meaning into the two simple words “yes” and “no” than John Salthouse playing the monosyllabic Tony with unexplained pent up fury. While Harriet Reynolds as Sue has the least to do, she does it superbly – her face when she is listening to some of the things which her daughter might be getting up to at the titular party is an absolute study in repressed misery.
The multi-layered characterisation is thrown into sharp relief by the thin as tissue paper storyline of a suburban drinks party which nobody really wants to attend. It seems to set out to prove Sartre’s claim that “Hell is other people” and does so in such a delightfully toe-curling way that we can only give thanks that we’re observers rather than participants. Mike Leigh purportedly cannot look at this version as he thinks it is technically inadequate and watching it I could see what he means but at the same time it is the limited staginess of it all that I find rather appealing.
And, of course, the gloriously quotable moments just keep on coming and induce little feelings of joy every time one hoves into view. “A little top up”, “I’ve got very beautiful lips”, “Demis Roussos”, “A little cheesy pineapple thing”, “Now, don’t get me wrong” – has any modern play contributed quite so many seemingly inconsequential phrases to the current lexicon? As a deconstruction of middle class pretension the play has no equal – the red wine that goes in the fridge, the horror of olives, the inappropriate music veering between Tom Jones and Beethoven’s Fifth, the un/misinformed notions about art and literature, the wonderfully naff costume and set design with too much late 1970s brown. No wonder Dennis Potter dismissed the play as “a sneer” – but what an absolutely glorious sneer it is.
Abigail’s Party is available on the BBC’s iPlayer; click here
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