Abigail’s Party (1977), or Who’s Afraid of the Middle Class

In the throes of Mike Leigh’s career at the BBC devising and directing tele-plays for Play for Today, came Abigail’s Party one of the most talked about and impactful of all of the plays produced. With a lasting legacy that launched the career of leading lady Alison Steadman, and solidified Mike Leigh’s status as a director in the British eye, Abigail’s Party has stood the test of time and is revered as a modern British classic. The play was developed through lengthy rehearsal’s where improvisation was greatly encouraged by Leigh to allow the characters to build and develop their characters in their own way, without revealing plot points to the actors until later on in production, allowed Leigh to craft a naturalistic play that relied on the realism brought by the actors through their characterisation. 

The premise of the play is simple, Beverley Moss, and her husband Laurence, invites her new neighbours, Tony and Angela, around for a small party, along with her divorced neighbour Susan, whose Daughter is having her own party at home. What starts out as an awkward, uncomfortable gathering soon reveals the darkness hiding behind the aesthetic qualities of their middle-class lifestyles, the anger, bitterness and jealousy all comes to the forefront of the party as the drinks start to take effect and the homely aesthetic is unmasked. 

The characters are all believable and in some way relatable, which only heightens the uncomfortable nature of the suburban life that Leigh captures. With each of the party goers representing a different aspect of middle-class life, each with their own motivations and aspirations as to their role and place in the community. Perhaps the most interesting of all is the hostess herself, Beverley Moss. Mike Leigh, writing for The Guardian, wrote that “while she may be perceived as monstrous, she is in fact vulnerable, insecure and sad”. She dominates the evening, bullying and manipulating her guests into drinking more, siding with her on the music choice, embarrassing her guests through snide comments, but beneath the vitriol there is a clear sense of sorrow and melancholy that tinges Alison Steadman’s wonderful performance. She’s a walking embodiment of hypocrisy, and while at first this seems to play into her cunning side, by the end you realise it’s more so a symptom of her unfulfilling and desolate life. She has a beautiful kitchen that all of the guests compliment but she admits she doesn’t use most of the fancy appliances, she has a fully stocked drinks cabinet but her guests only want simple drinks like a Bacardi & Coke or a glass of Sherry. Much like the party as a whole, Beverley’s identity is built on appearance and aesthetic with little else, and you can feel the emptiness of her life through her struggle to maintain power in the gathering. We’re told that Beverley is a former cosmetic demonstrator, and now relies on her husband for money, something that she considers to be one of his best qualities, and her desire, but ineptitude, for a middle class lifestyle is highlighted mainly through her juxtaposition with Susan.

 While Beverley and Laurence represent the aspiring lower class, Susan is represented firmly within the middle class, being the ex-wife of an architect and living in one of the oldest houses on the street, hence why Beverley tries to mock and belittle her while Laurence shows off and attempts to please her. Susan brings a nice bottle of wine and hasn’t eaten when she arrives at the party, the latter indicating she was expecting dinner at the gathering over the nuts & crisps provided, and Beverley makes the faux-pas of putting the wine in the fridge to chill, an indication of her naivety about the subject. But Susan has her own struggles that come across in the play as well. Still struggling with the aftermath of her divorce three years ago, she has failed to move on with a new boyfriend while her ex-husband has moved on with a new woman, the prospect of her new life and slipping class status is clearly effecting her. She isn’t used to the parties such as her daughter is throwing, meanwhile the rest of the characters all reassure her it’s just what teenagers do, presumably indicating they grew up in a similar culture.

Meanwhile Laurence, who is so eager to attain a middle-class lifestyle refuses to take a break from work even when it’s affecting his health, sees Susan as someone to impress due to her status, so he shows off his (unread) Shakespeare collection, classical music and artwork. Meanwhile Tony & Angela Cooper, are new to the area and the lifestyle, they have an interesting interplay with the other characters as their attitudes are split, Tony is resentful of his lower status among the party-goers, lying about his job “in computers”, and sullen throughout the party rarely engaging unless he’s bitterly injerecting comments or commands to his wife. But Angela is the most eager of them, enjoying what she perceives to be the new norm, she’s almost childlike in her giggling demeanour, but is also extremely submissive to her husband (for example, she says that she doesn’t drive because Tony tells her not to). She ends up admiring, and almost looking up to, Beverly who eggs her on by constantly filling up her drink and eventually convincing her to smoke again. There is a lot of depth to these characters, while I’ve focused more on Beverley, the same analysis could be applied to any of the characters, and what makes this film so fantastic in my eyes is how these characters are fleshed out through subtle details like what kind of art they prefer or their attitude to the party.

The whole teleplay takes place inside Beverley & Laurence’s house with minimal change in camerwork. It’s a very tranquil camerawork that uses its stillness to highlight the interactions and details of the party. Characters come and go from the house, but the focus always remains on the epicentre of conflict, and thus the camera captures the uncomfortable tension that underlines the party. While this is indicative of Abigail’s Party being a play then adapted to a TV movie, I also think it was a conscious choice by Leigh in order to create tension. There’s times where you may want the camera to follow certain characters as they leave, but by keeping the story rooted in the living room we’re faced with the realities of the situation with all the uncomfortable silences or awkward tension firmly kept at the forefront of the film. In my title of this review I allude to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which is fantastic in its own right, but I can’t help but feel there are overlaps in how both this film and Albee’s play approach the issue of marriage and class. While the latter focuses on University Professor’s and a deeper look at the characters marriage, Mike Leigh’s teleplay feels like he’s re-writing Who’s Afraid but rooted firmly in the middle class, examining the complexities of the relationships within it, and also the varying degrees of the middle-class and how they interact with each other. Ultimately Mike Leigh crafted a poignant play, that I think translates wonderfully into a teleplay that will make you laugh, cringe, and most importantly, think.

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