'Abigail's Party' is still, some 35 years after its first run, one of the best-known British comedies and is regularly revived. And with a DVD of the BBC version still being sold the play continues to enjoy widespread popularity. No wonder, then, that it came 11th in the BFI top 100 TV programme list (and third in the single drama category).
The play was developed from improvisation orchestrated by the writer and director of the original version, Mike Leigh, who worked with the actors individually before allowing them to interact with the others. It is a comedy of manners and class which focuses on a group of 5 neighbours who gather for a drinks party at a suburban house situated on the London side of Essex, somewhere near Romford or in that vicinity.
The drinks party is being held at Beverly and Laurence's home. Laurence is an estate agent who works long hours and suffers from coronary-inducing stress. The couple have been married for three years, and their home is decorated in a style which might be aptly described as '70s nightmare'. Most of us who lived through that period would instantly recognise some of the tasteless decorations, pictures and gaudy geometric wallpaper that adorns their home and were found in many of our own at the time. A wooden room divider provides the focal point of Mike Britton's meticulously authentic set, and there are reproductions of Lowry paintings and Lawrence's leather-bound Shakespeare collection which he readily admits is 'not something you can actually read'.
Angela and Tony have also been married for three years and have only recently moved into the neighbourhood. Tony is a virile, handsome, but moody computer operator whose career as a professional footballer 'didn't work out'. Angie is a naïve, almost child-like nurse who seems totally 'under-the-thumb' of her husband. When Beverly asks her if Tony is violent, Angie says “No, he's not violent. Just a bit nasty”.
The final participant is Sue, an older neighbour who has been forced out of her home for the evening while her teenage daughter Abigail has a party, and which gives this play its title. Sue is divorced from her architect husband and her demeanour betrays a more sophisticated personality who is uncomfortable in company. She is ruthlessly interrogated by Angela and Beverly about her divorce and her relationship with her estranged husband. Unaccustomed to alcohol she is plied with gin and tonics by Beverly and by the end of the first half is vomiting in the toilet, looked-after by nurse Angela.
The task of directing such a well-known play is an onerous one to say the least. But Lindsay Posner delivers an admirable revival which is both faithful to the original and yet contains fresh perspectives. And the cast rise to the occasion too, turning-in truly riveting performances. Even so, the influence of the original production is clearly in evidence. There are occasional hints of Alison Steadman's Beverly in Jill Halfpenny's portrayal and Andy Nyman's speech patterns certainly reminded me of Tim Stern, the first Lawrence. On the other hand, Natalie Casey's doll-like Angela is quite a revelation and wrung more humour from the character than I have witnessed before. Joe Absolom is a brooding, menacing Tony – a character you would not want to get on the wrong side of. And Susannah Harker, as Sue, finds the whole evening unbearable but is prevented from leaving by her middle-class politesse and (one suspects) fear of Beverly's domineering personality.
'Abigail's Party' may have had its roots in the dim and distant 1970s but it is still excruciatingly funny, and still unmissable.