Awkward parties, 1970s fashion and Demis Roussos: the enduring appeal of Abigail’s Party
- Credit: ©Nobby Clark Photographer
Writer, director and filmmaker Mike Leigh expected it to 'sink without trace', instead his play became a phenomena that continues to entertain audiences 40 years on.
Abigail's Party was first staged in 1977, running for 104 packed house performances after its debut before famously being adapted for television later the same year.
Written and directed by Mike Leigh, in the 40 years since the appalling Beverly first plied her guests with cheese and pineapple nibbles, alcohol and danced across the shagpile, the play has gone down in theatre history.
It was a sell-out for two runs at Hampstead Theatre in London, was well received as a BBC Play for Today and, when repeated for a second time in August 1979, around 16 million people watched.
It has since become a staple of amateur theatre companies up and down the country, and further afield — there have been production in such unlikely places as Brazil.
While its famous for the 1970s kitsch — the décor, the clothes, the drinks cabinet, the record player blaring out Demis Roussos records, the cheese and pineapple snacks, the smoking, the Bacardi and cokes — it's continued success four decades on is down to more than just nostalgia.
This is play that taps into strained relationships and awkward social situations, with dreadfully uncomfortable dialogue between social climbing neighbours. Hilarious and horribly compelling, it is a deep, dark, moving and beautifully-observed period piece.
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To mark its 40th anniversary a new production comes to Norwich Theatre Royal ahead of a return to London' West End.
Amanda Abbington gives a monstrous interpretation of the role of central character Beverly, pivoting around the stage in her long white dress and bling jewellery, smoking, drinking and savagedly putting down estate agent husband Lawrence, played by Ben Caplan.
The drinks party from hell begins when Beverly and Laurence invite round their new neighbours, Tony and Ange, along with the nervous divorcee Sue, who is jittery about the bash her teenage daughter Abigail is throwing down the road. As that party gets out of hand, this one too descends into chaos, and comedy, drama and tragedy combine into what has become an iconic piece of theatre.
It's huge success remains a surprise to playwright, director and later much acclaimed filmmaker Mike Leigh as he expected it to 'sink without trace'.
He was convinced to write what he thought would be a quick production, despite his then-wife Alison Steadman being pregnant.
'I'll do it and get it out of the way, I told Alison. It'll just be a stopgap. It'll sink without trace. Then we'll be able to concentrate on the things that matter,' he recently recalled to The Guardian. 'Then I suggested that Alison be in it. She hesitated. She really wanted to devote time to domesticity. But as it was to be a quick, forgettable job, she relented.'
The play's success led to the TV adaptation which cemeted this 'forgettable job' in the public imagination. And Beverly, the personification of the gauche, aspirational hostess, has become an unlikely gay icon and a drag-queen favourite; there are Abigail's Party parties where fans recite lines to one another
An example of its status and enduring success came in 1999 when as part of the National Theatre's year-long project charting 20th century drama, the original cast read extracts from the play in London's Olivier Theatre. It was the first time they had been reunited on stage since the play made its debut at Hampstead Theatre in 1977.
Such was the scramble for tickets that a huge overflow audience watched the action on a TV screen outside the theatre.
Another aspect of the play that sticks in people's minds is the music. We're back in the 1970s, and when Beverley needs some sophisticated music for her dinner party, she turns her attention straight to Demis Roussos. The Greek pop, folk and rock singer started out in the band Aphrodites' Child (which also included Vengelis, the composer behind Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner).
Roussos would go on to achieve solo success following his debut single Shall We Dance, and he would sell 60 million albums worldwide by the time of his death in 2015. Songs like Forever and Ever, Goodbye and Quand je t'aime were huge hits, and Beverley plays his record as a way of impressing her guests, commenting breezily that he 'doesn't sound' fat.
• Abigail's Party, Norwich Theatre Royal from March 27-April 1, 7.30pm, 2.30pm March 29/April 1, £28.50-£8, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk