Abigail’s Party wasn’t supposed to endure. Director/creator Mike Leigh thought his comedy drama, part of the BBC’s Play for Today strand featuring a disastrous dinner party, would ‘sink without trace’. But he did have in his arsenal (steady) his then wife, the wonderful Alison Steadman as Beverly. It’s all about Beverly. Pregnant at the time of filming, Steadman is the TV play’s secret weapon- bullish, vulgar, a praying mantis in polyester. She based her performance on make up counter girls, who were caked in drag queen amounts of slap, and almost entirely lacking in tact, intelligence, or any sense of style, class or etiquette.
She is the centre- like the chocolate in an Arctic Roll (tres chic for the 70s) she dominates the action, with her gobby nasal Essex girl voice and cringeworthy, ill-judged pronouncements on life, as tasteless as the beige and brown decor that surrounds the small cast.Alongside her husband, they are products of the Thatcher generation, new money, with no clue as to how they got there, and misguided aspirations.
Her marriage to uptight Laurence (Tim Stern) is dying a suburban death. His every utterance is embittered, becoming increasingly pointed to the moment where it all unravels between the couple, and he suffers a heart attack. The seemingly foolish Angela (a wonderfully geeky Janine Duvitski) attempts to come to the rescue, where Beverly flounders, and still makes it all about her. Angela’s husband is equally ghastly, Tony (John Salthouse) -a monosyllabic bully, and Sue (Harriet Reynolds) is the only one with whom we can really sympathise- anxious, sweet and articulate, worrying about the titular daughter, who we never see, next-door, clearly having a riotous party where something or someone will be broken.
Totems of pop culture become Play-doh in Leigh’s hands- semi-improvised, such lines as ‘Demis Roussous doesn’t sound fat, does he Ange?’ ‘I’ll pop this red wine in the fridge’ and (of the kids next-door) ‘They’re going to have fun, aren’t they?’are hilarious, the stuff of legend through sheer cringingly recognisable delivery.
Leigh has often been accused of misogyny and snobbery, yet these seem unfair labels- he was and is a Hogarth or Ralph Steadman, dealing in societal grotesques-amplifying the horror – it is all grounded in reality, after all. This is why it endures. Looking good.Happy 40th, we love to love you (baby).
Images from the BBC