Abigail’s Party. Alma Theatre, Bristol
Set in the 1970s Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party is still a play about us. Fashions transform and house prices rise, but people don’t change that much. It is the reason why the tragic comedy about the soiree from hell that gripped the nation in 1977 continues to make us feel uncomfortable with its unpicking of social norms in its uncompromising exposure of how we behave.
Socially things haven’t changed much since Beverly threw open her front door to her neighbours for an evening of nibbles and talk of property prices. Set in aspic are lower middle class Tony and Angela, middle class Sue and aspiring middle class Beverly and Laurence.
The hero of the social occasion featuring non-stop G&T top ups and cheese and pineapple on sticks is Angela played with perfect awkwardness by Jennifer Jope complete with a cringingly submissive compliance to her bullying husband Tony. For NHS nurse Angela takes charge first when Sue is sick and then when host Laurence (Adam Elms) takes ill, banishing social norms and asserting her authority in the drunken emergency. Her ex-professional footballer Tony was played with moody masculinity by Ryan Gilks who had an alarmingly convincing sexual chemistry with Beverly (Anna Friend) but sees his authority reduced as the crisis grows. Diane Lukins as the excruciatingly polite Sue was at once bullied, manipulated and insulted by Beverly, but in reality was breaking all of Beverly’s unwritten social rules. She was a single divorced mum who allows her rebellious teenage daughter Abigail to have an unsupervised party and even more shockingly: to have a pink streak in her hair. Well it was 1977.
So much of what we discuss today is there in this period piece of four decades ago: the power relationships between men and women, what is life really about, materialism and consumerism, the social status and salaries associated with different jobs, and the social does and don’ts of You and Non You. The role of women has changed to some extent since the play was first staged. Now Sue wouldn’t be thought of as so unusual as a divorced mother and Angela would most likely have demanded to be allowed to learn to drive. And quite possibly Beverly would have had a job – and vaped rather than smoked – but Laurence’s social pretentions would likely to be unchanged. It is certainly a play that leads to considerable discussion afterwards because as I have mentioned – it’s about us.
The Schoolhouse production at Bristol’s Alma Tavern Theatre was directed by Anna Friend and co-directed by Holly Newton who clearly had enjoyed taking the cast back to the flock wall paper and shag pile carpet era when it was OK to smoke indoors. It is a highly enjoyable and faithful production as Friend has allowed each character to have a new lease of life. Leigh’s dialogue flows so naturally that he must have attended quite a few soirees in order to take notes while the play’s construction with is shocking black humour of a climax still surprises – but is also so appropriate in bringing the evening to a perfect close.
It is interesting to note the drama began through improvisation before it was staged with great success at the Hampstead Theatre is April 1977. Then a version was made for television for BBC Scotland in the series A Play For Today and was broadcast in November of that year. It featured Alison Steadman as Beverly, Tim Stern as Laurence, Janine Duvitski as Angela, John Salthouse as Tony and Thelma Whiteley as Sue. Thelma Whiteley’s role was played by Harriet Reynolds when it was screened on TV.
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