We have all been to dull drinks parties where the only topics seem to be the hum-drum banalities of life. We’ve all silently wished it would get a bit more exciting.
Abigail’s Party reminds us in hilarious fashion to be careful what we wish for.
A hugely popular TV play, believed to have been watched by 16 million people on its first airing in 1977, it is one of writer Mike Leigh’s most loved works.
It is set in the gloriously ‘1970s suburban Essex’ living room of the uncultured, undersexed Beverly (former Eastender Hannah Waterman) and her rather dull husband Laurence (Martin Marquez).
They invite round some neighbours, younger couple Angela and Tony and prim Susan (whose 15 year old daughter Abigail is having another party, which gives the play its name). The routine commonplaces of suburban life seem more excruciating than usual, but hilarious to an audience.
Beverly is invariably the one to delight in highlighting this in the others, and Waterman with every patronising line displays her contempt and imagined superiority, despite her scarcely better social position.
The hostess is the principal energy source of the play, cajoling and exposing the pomposity of her husband, flirting outrageously with the younger Tony, looking down her nose at everyone in sight from her REAL leather chair.
Waterman is cruelly brilliant. Just as the apocryphal fact that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, ‘yeah’ for Beverly somehow conveys everything from reinforcing a bit of particularly vicious condescension (“Mind you, Ang, your house is smaller than this one, yeah, because they are smaller on your side, yeah”) to sarcasm outlining the black hole of excitement in her life (“We’re really enjoying ourselves aren’t we, yeah”).
Snooty without the serrated edge of Beverly, Boycie-like Marquez makes sure he illustrates the type of aloof Seventies man eager to distinguish the social levels represented by a house built before the war and one after.
Mind you, the audience doesn’t feel much sympathy for enjoyably naive Angela (Katie Lightfoot) or beyond-dull Tony (Samuel James), whose stunning, sleep-inducing drawl drops from his mouth encased in several layers of lead. Only likeable Susan, worrying about the other party, is a true innocent here.
As the play goes on, incalculable visits to the marvellous Seventies cocktail cabinet (which almost deserves a mention in the cast list) lubricate proceedings and, as the haze descends, the whole thing unravels satisfyingly with desires and frustrations bubbling over.
Leigh exposes the fact that money alone cannot fulfil people’s lives and Abigail’s Party remains popular today because that message remains true; record players and real leather are no substitute for excitement.
Thankfully when viewed from the outside the in-built frustration of the middle class is a rich source of insight, tension and amusement.
Abigail’s Party will continue at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday.