Forever and Ever…
In November 1977 the BBC’s Play for Today programme first broadcast the suburban comedy satire Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh, an abridged teleplay version of the Hampstead Theatre production.
The play was largely devised in lengthy improvisations and Mike Leigh worked with his actors individually, developing their characters and not revealing to anyone or each other what was decided about their character’s fate during the play.
The plot framework is simple; Beverly and husband Laurence are holding a drinks party for their new neighbours Tony and Angela. Sue from number nine’s 15-year-old daughter Abigail (who is not seen) is having her first party, so Sue has been invited along as well. But as with any human situation the evening becomes a gradual melting pot of angst, point scoring, underlying prejudices, snobbery, fights and cringe-worth clichés, all fuelled by a little too much alcohol.
Descending quickly into farcical chaos the play is a mix of comedy and tragedy, the dialogue is homely and natural and the whole debacle made a lasting comment on what was identified in the 1970’s as the new British-middle class due to financial prosperity
All but one of the original actors made the transition to the television screen; Alison Steadman (Gavin and Stacey) as Beverly, Tim Stern (Holby City) as Laurence, John Salthouse (Silk) as Tony and Janine Duvitski (Benidorm) as Angela. The original actress playing Sue Thelma Whiteley (Big Bad World) declined to take part so Harriet Reynolds (Jeeves and Wooster) replaced her. Four of the original teleplay line up are still working as actors, sadly Harriet Reynolds passed away of cancer in 1992.
Revivals of the play are popular in theatres and always seem to fall on Royal Jubilees, one in 2003 and the most recent in March 2012, opening at Menier Chocolate Factory in London. This superb production keeps plenty of the original Leigh spirit but the new cast really make it their own with Jill Halfpenny (EastEnders) as Beverly; Andy Nyman (Death at a Funeral) as Laurence; Joe Absolom (Long Time Dead) as Tony; Natalie Casey (Two Pints of Larger and a Packet of Crisps) as Angela and Susannah Harker (House of Cards) portrays Sue. Due to its success it transferred to the West End’s Wyndhams Theatre in May and will run till September 1st 2012.
Having somewhat of a cult following Abigail’s Party is considered a classic as no other original theatre play has made such a lasting impact on television. Not only did people identify with the characters but laughed at the exaggerated caricatures and their pitfalls. The so called nouveau riche is still pushing itself in to the light; though the parameters of what is considered de rigueur has changed, the clothes may have dated but the fundamental formula will never date; working on the simple premise of ‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ no matter what you have.
Nearly 35 years have passed since the cheesey-pineapple on cocktail sticks, crisps and nuts, (reluctant) olives and Demis Roussos on the stylus and we still can’t get enough.