ABIGAIL'S PARTY (1977)

TV show image
abigails_party

When teenager Abigail throws a party for her friends, her next-door neighbour, Beverly Moss, does likewise for the adults - inviting Abigail's mum, Sue, and neighbours Tony and Angela. In spite of the title of Mike Leigh's play, all the action takes place in Beverly's living room - and Abigail is never seen. And good luck to her, because Beverly is the hostess from hell.

Lacking any social skills Beverly stumbles through a series of cringe-making social blunders, begins flirting with Tony, starts sniping at her over-stressed husband, Laurence, does little to instil confidence in an already anxious Sue, and gets steadily sozzled whilst listening to, and inflicting on everyone else, Demis Roussos on the gramophone. Just when the evening looks as though it couldn't get any worse, her sniping at Laurence turns into a full-blown argument until he finally decides that the only way to extract himself from this awful situation is to drop dead with a heart attack. Which he does!

Abigail's Party was originally written for the stage in 1977 by Mike Leigh and starred his wife, Alison Steadman, as the awful Beverly and Tim Stern as her husband Laurence. Janine Duvitski starred as Angela and her husband Tony was played by John Salthouse. Susan was originally played by Thelma Whiteley and, while for the television version the original cast reprised their roles, Whiteley declined and was replaced by Harriet Reynolds. The original stage production at the Hampstead Theatre ran for 2 hours, whilst the TV version was cut to 100 minutes. The only other change was that in the stage version the song that Beverly insisted on playing was "Light My Fire" by Jose Feliciano and in the TV production it was "For Ever and Ever" by Demis Roussos.

The play was dominated by Alison Steadman's compelling performance as the social climbing, overbearing hostess without any tact or guile. It was a star-making performance that firmly established Abigail's Party as the most celebrated TV play of the 1970s and enhanced the reputation of Mike Leigh who had won critical acclaim the year before with Nuts in May. It also became the first production on everyone's lips whenever they discussed the BBC anthology series Play for Today, under which banner it was broadcast. When repeated for a second time in August 1979, around 16 million people watched. It's hard to imagine now that Leigh thought his original play wouldn't transfer to television. He would have preferred to have taken it to the West End, and there were plenty of offers to do so, until Alison Steadman fell pregnant. Around the same time producer Margaret Matheson informed Leigh that she had "an empty television studio on her hands."

However, the play was not a hit with everyone. Dennis Potter, writing in the Sunday Times stated that the play was "based on nothing more edifying than rancid disdain, for it was a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes. It sank under its own immense condescension." In spite of this, a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, placed Abigail's Party at number 11.

Review: Marc Saul 2008