By Mike Leigh
Directed by Lindsay Posner
Tour directed by Tom Attenborough
21st March 2013
Beverly … Hannah Waterman
Laurence … Martin Marquez
Angela … Katie Lightfoot
Tony … Samuel James
Susan … Emily Raymond
This would be the third stage production I’ve seen, and I’d guess I’ve seen the 1977 Mike Leigh TV play three or four times too. We had the VHS video. We’ve got the DVD. The last stage production we saw was also at Poole Lighthouse, and I can’t find it on the internet, but Ann White played Susan, Abigail’s mum. Abigail is the 15 year old having the party next door and we never see her.
The original TV play with Alison Steadman as Beverly stands (with Nuts in May) as one of the towering achievements of TV drama, although Mike Leigh has pointed out that it was also just about the last traditional five-camera studio drama. One of the issues is that most people recall the original so well that it’s hard to deviate or indeed improvise much, which is ironic given the way it was created. But once it had been aired in 1977, it became set in stone. The problem for any cast is that because the original 1977 theatre production was created with improvisation, the words in the text were partly created by the original cast. So whoever plays Beverly is stuck with ‘If you know what I mean’ and ‘Ange’ and all the other Alison Steadmanisms of 1977. To a lesser extent that falls on every role. The back story was also created by the originals. Creating and improvising a back story is a powerful tool, even if you then stick to a pre-ordainerd script, but it means that the original cast of five owned and inhabited the roles, while subsequent actors can only play them.
It’s also like Noel Coward … no wait for it … because it’s glued to an era. When theatres do Coward, they do 1930s or 1940s. No one thinks of deviating from the time frame. Abigail’s Party is so laden with 70s references that the appeal of doing the play at all is accentuating its time capsule nature. This production does it particularly well. The shag pile rug was there in 1977, but Laurence’s paintings are larger reproductions (better) and the room divider hides a dining table behind it. It’s the oranges and browns of 1977. But I never met anyone who stored their LPs with the open side facing out as here with the discs peeping out … doh! The titles are on the spines of LPs so they were always stored spine facing out. But the speakers on the room divider and the early music system are perfect.
This production has run in the West End, and is on a long tour with a degree of re-direction. The costumes recreate the late 70s so well. My first thought seeing the lurid green dress on Beverley was ‘Why did they copy 1977? But they didn’t. Alison Steadman was in the “alternative perfect colour” … orange. The fidelity included using the obscure LP “Love Mist” by Sam “The Man” Taylor , which Alison Steadman had introduced to the original production herself. Basically you just need smooch music.
L to R: Angie, Beverly, Laurence, Susan
The wonderful cast do not try to replicate the original production, and it’s distracting to have put the 1977 photos in the programme. Bad move. They’re all different. Laurence is burlier. Tony is more overtly drawn to Beverley, and gets more comedy out of the role. Angie is blonde and in a little girl dress. Abigail’s mum, Susan is even more intellectual in appearance. Her descent into drunk then vomiting is perfectly performed.
The dance scene in Act II was “bigger” and funnier too, and while Beverley and Tony groped, I couldn’t take my eyes off Ange, in her chair, starting to try to hand-jive, then getting embroiled with the lemon in her drink. First rate reactive acting. Ange’s dance with Laurence was tears from the eyes stuff.
Tony and Beverly
Some critics back in 1977 found the play cruel, which most humour is. It was certainly just ahead of its time in portraying ‘Essex man (and woman)’ two years before Thatcher was elected. There is a lot of subtle stuff going on. An easy description is class politics, with Susan as the traditional middle class representative, but it’s not standard class politics. Susan was married to an architect, but is divorced. She brings wine to the evening, and hasn’t eaten assuming the evening invitation will include either a meal, or at least a buffet. The others have all had their tea before. Susan asks for a sherry, but only spirits are on offer. Then Beverly and Laurence, the new rising class, are condescending in assuming they’ll need lager for Tony. But Tony hasn’t arrived at the new posh lagers of 1977 and asks for light ale. Susan brings red wine, and Beverly immediately puts it in the fridge demonstrating her ignorance. It’s Beaujolais. That’s been pointed out as a potential error, in that Beaujolais can indeed benefit from 15 minutes cooling, and I’d be inclined to substitute (say) Chianti in the script, but Beaujolais in 1977 would have been seen as French and appelation controleé so definitely an upmarket offering in a time when Yugoslav Riesling and Carafino red from Hungary were the choice of the impoverished wine drinker.
It’s not a question of money or even class, but educational background … which is why a few accused Mike Leigh of snobbery. In 1977 we would have been around Tony and Angie’s age, having just moved into our first flat. Beverly and Laurence, at a guess, are supposed to be five or more years older (which is why it’s noticeable that they’re childless). Susan is twelve years older. I don’t remember seeing spirits on offer at a party then, but we knew teachers and college lecturers with the odd musician and actor rolled in. Parties were wine, or if we visited the public school matron who owned the neighbouring flat and liked to invite us on Sundays, sherry. There is an age thing here too. Even in recent years, I’ve been taken aback at parties by older guests asking for a gin and tonic or a brandy and soda, because we’ve never served spirits at a party either. OK, we’re mean.
Mike Leigh has revisited similar themes recently. The film Another Year (link to my review) is equally filled with alcohol and cigarette smoke , and again there’s the divide between the university educated hosts and their guest who wasn’t. It is class politics, though not connected to wealth.
To someone who hasn’t seen it before the play is hysterical. For some of us, as London reviews pointed out, there was the distraction of knowing the text just a tad too well … a London reviewer complained about the people behind him finishing the lines in whispers. We didn’t get that in Poole, fortunately. It’s always a brilliant play, and very well-performed indeed this time around.
It would need Mike Leigh to do it himself … but I would be fascinated by an “Abigail’s Party Remastered” or “Abigail’s Party 2013 Remix” or whatever. I’d like to see the framework of the play extracted from 1977, re-improvised and re-scripted to work in a different era. Maybe 2013. Maybe 1963 or 1956 or 1989 … that’s not the point.
It’s not though. The enforced cigarettes and Manikins are a major part of the plot along with excessive booze and cheese and pineapple on sticks. You can’t eliminate them.
Very good essay on production history. I enjoyed the 1977 photos, but I still think comparisons are odious, and it’s better to let the 2013 tour version of the 2012 West End production stand on its own. It’s worthy of doing so.