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Abigail's Party (1977)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Abigail's Party (1977)
For Play for Today, BBC, tx. 1/11/1977
100 mins, colour
DirectorMike Leigh
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerMargaret Matheson
Devised byMike Leigh

Cast: Alison Steadman (Beverly); Tim Stern (Laurence); Janine Duvitski (Angela); John Salthouse (Tony); Harriet Reynolds (Susan)

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While teenage Abigail throws a party two doors away, the grown-ups gather for their own soiree at the home of pretentious hostess Beverley.

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Originating as a Hampstead Theatre production and first broadcast as part of Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84), 'Abigail's Party' (tx. 1/11/1977) is Mike Leigh's best-known television work, and perhaps the most celebrated TV play of the 1970s, as important to Play for Today as Ken Loach's 'Cathy Come Home' (tx. 16/11/1966) was to The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-71). Its enduring popularity has seen it staged in countless theatrical productions around the world, including a 2003 revival in London's West End.

The action, presenting an appalling evening of domestic entertaining in suburbia, takes place entirely in a confined living room in the home of Beverly (Alison Steadman) and Laurence (Tim Stern). The party which provides the play's title remains off-screen, initially misleading the audience into thinking that the real action is happening elsewhere.

'Abigail's Party' is morbidly compelling. None of the characters seems to like each other; the relationships between the couples appear to be based on mutual irritation and all seem self-preoccupied. Nor are any of them particularly likeable, which allows a comic mood to prevail even when events darken - Laurence's death, for example, is more farcical than it is tragic.

The play is dominated by Alison Steadman's mesmerising performance as the overbearing hostess Beverly, one of television's most memorable characterisations. Beverly's sing-song delivery of clich├ęd phrases fails to disguise a truly monstrous individual - she taunts her husband, flirts with Tony (John Salthouse) and manipulates her other guests for her own gain; her forced attempts at hospitality are to be endured rather than enjoyed. Yet Beverly's awfulness is captivating; she is an archetype of the aspiring middle-class matriarch. Defined by a set of attitudes which don't fit together, she hides her lack of identity behind received ideas of taste. Her motivation remains unclear; she easily controls the others but they seem to give her little in return, except to fuel her misplaced sense of power and mastery.

While the play's dialogue, as Alan Bennett has noted, is "instantly real", the performances are determinedly not naturalistic. The play is self-consciously theatrical; from the confined set to the marked sense of audience - the guests both follow the action at Abigail's party and are onlookers to the spectacle provided by their hosts. Nevertheless, the characters, while exaggerated, are immediately recognisable, the social discomfort palpable. It is this instant and lasting sense of connection which ensures the play's continued impact.

Lucy Skipper

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Video Clips
1. A very nice couple (1:52)
2. Demis Roussos or James Galway (1:20)
3. 'Where's Tony?' (3:03)
4. A little dance (7:05)
Leigh, Mike (1943-)
Female Protagonists
Mike Leigh on TV
Play for Today (1970-84)
The Television Play