Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party occupies a fond place in British popular culture not usually reserved for either plays or pieces of cultural criticism. Which is exactly what it is, a play which critiques both the pretensions to culture and the dismissal of the examined life by the emerging middle classes in 1970’s Britain.
Designer Janet Bird’s set has the audience starting into a literal window of a suburban life, before Amanda Abbington’s Beverley struts onto the stage in a formless to the sound of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” The window façade opens up on a panorama of ‘70s chic which is the home of the host couple of what is the most uncomfortably menacing, yet compulsively hilarious soirée you are likely to attend.
Abbington is a force of nature from first sight, self-consciously boogieing like a backing dancer from Top of the Pops in her own living room, berating her husband on his return from work for forgetting the lager and working too much. Ben Caplan’s Laurence is the foil of the piece; all of Beverly’s self-centred vindictiveness emerge from her awareness that she married a man who she can’t understand. Inviting new neighbours Angela (Charlotte Mills) and Tony (Ciaran Owens) over for an evening to show herself off, Beverly considers her husband to be a manservant and her neighbours the local peasants she can convert to fans. Beverley flaunts her slightly larger house (“the new houses on your side-I was told they aren’t as big as ours”) and her updated kitchen utensils (Beverley can’t cook to the point where she is unsure of the functionality of a Rotisserie-although she insists “it’s new.”)
The couple have plotted the party over the excuse that they are entertaining local divorcee Sue (Rose Keegan) whose teenage daughter Abigail is having a 16th birthday party next door. Sue is the only authentically middle class character in the play, but she is also the most socially polite and forgiving. Mills’s Angela’s playing up to Beverley’s domineering sense of “fun” is reminiscent of primary school tokenism, and Owen’s delivery of hilariously monotone replies to Beverley’s questions and advances stir the general sense of uncomfortable familiarity that paces the play.
We all know a Beverley, but why should we have to be entertained by her? The cast deliver an almost balletic display of territorialism and physical comedy throughout, with Abbington’s fleeting steps making a map of the divisions she wishes to place between her guests. Caplan’s Laurence charges his house like a man who is either about o have a heart attack or insight a class riot, he almost insights the former with his allusions to the “better class of people” who used to populate the area like himself and Sue compared to the blow-ins represented by Tony, Angela, and his taste bereft wife. He mercifully has the former to save from the enjoyable, but almost unbearable and menacing farce the evening has become.
The genius conceit of the play is that it manages to comment on this idea of cultural capital becoming a divisive topic in the 1970s, while also being as shamelessly entertaining as the popular culture which Beverley’s husband despises. The great sadness the play instils in the viewer is that men and women in the 1970’s really couldn’t choose who they married; marriage seems the macguffin that represents the dreary lack of fulfilment in each of these party guests lives. The cast deliver thoroughly on could be a difficult play not to turn into a series of clichés, the horror of social mingling here seem as foreboding as they were in 1977.
Abigail’s party is at Norwich Theatre Royal 27th March -1st April