Despite having been hurriedly (and, in the opinion of its creator, inadequately) videotaped for television from its theatrical run, ABIGAIL'S PARTY is Mike Leigh's best-known work in England, where it commands huge audiences when it is rerun and continues to be performed by theatrical
groups. A one-act, one-set play whose entire action consists of a cocktail party attended by five people, it is an essentially British work that doesn't wholly translate to American viewers. Still, it is worth seeing for an unforgettable performance by Alison Steadman as Beverly, the hostess from
The setting is the living room of Beverly and her husband Laurence (Tim Stern), who live in a lower-middle class area of London. Beverly aspires to move up and out of the neighborhood, a hope she should soon realize as Laurence, a real estate agent, is doing well. She has invited three neighbors
over for cocktails. First to arrive are Angela (Janine Duvitski), a nurse, and her husband Tony (John Salthouse), a computer operator. They have just moved into the area, where they have bought their first house. Angela is homely, a situation not improved by her manner of dress. Tony, who is as
quiet as Angela is chatty, is a handsome former athlete. Theirs is obviously a marriage that will not last. The third guest, Susan (Harriet Reynolds), is older and more genteel than the others. She has been divorced for several years. Her 15-year-old daughter Abigail is throwing a party tonight
(music from which can be heard throughout the evening), and has apparently accepted Beverly's invitation only as a way to get out of her own house.
Everyone is uncomfortable except Beverly and Angela, who drink a lot and exchange gleefully banal conversation. Susan is clearly worried about her daughter's party, which had shown signs of going out of control before she left. She is made more nervous by the advice offered by Beverly and Angela,
neither of whom has children. Tony says nothing, grunting monosyllabically when questioned. Absent at the beginning of the party, Laurence carries on a between-the-lines battle with his wife, who looks down on him. When he can bear it no longer, he and Tony use the excuse of checking up on
Abigail's party to get away for a few minutes. Susan becomes sick from all the alcohol Beverly keeps pressing on her and vomits. Laurence returns alone, saying everything is OK at the party but not wanting to say where Tony is. When Tony returns, his shirt is soaking wet. In the guise of
entertaining her guests, Beverly abuses her husband, who tries to impress the others with his gold-embossed set of bound Shakespeare and light classical records (Beverly prefers syrupy pop music). Initiating a dance, Beverly flirts openly with Tony. When Laurence tries to interest Susan in his
Van Gogh print, Beverly derides it and insists on getting a cheap erotic painting her husband makes her keep in the bedroom. Tony tries to get Angela to leave and nearly strikes her. Laurence replaces Beverly's record with a Beethoven recording, sits down, and has a heart attack. Angela tries to
revive him while Beverly frets, taking her annoyance out on Susan. The play ends with Tony helping Angela work out a severe cramp she got working on the now-dead Laurence and Susan on the telephone to her house, unable to hear Abigail over the din.
Not much happens on the surface in ABIGAIL'S PARTY; the play derives its comic tension from the effects on its characters of events we don't see. What is it about Abigail (whom we never see, though music from her party down the street permeates the play) that has her mother so worried? What does
Tony do when he goes there? Has Beverly been having an affair with Tony? How can Laurence have lived with Beverly for so long without murdering her?
Leigh reluctantly allowed ABIGAIL'S PARTY to be taped for television when a scheduling hole appeared; it's a piece designed to work with the immediacy of live theater, and doesn't wholly work on television. Some of the lines are a bit obvious; for instance, Laurence going on about the importance
of Shakespeare to "our heritage... of course, it's not something you can actually read." But in Beverly, Alison Steadman has created the ultimate domestic monster. Clad in a dress whose ugliness is surpassed only by her necklace, exuding sex the way an octopus exudes ink, and bending everything to
her will, she's so different from the space cadet she played a year earlier in Leigh's NUTS IN MAY (1976) that it's hard to believe its the same actress. Hard as it is to compete with that, Janine Duvitski also creates a memorable character in the ditzy Angela. (Adult situations, substance abuse,profanity.)
Sign up and add shows to get the latest updates about your favorite shows - Start Now
- 1. The Final Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Trailer Is Here
- 2. Emotions Were Running Very High on This Week's Dancing with the Stars
- 3. Rob Lowe and Liv Tyler Are a Steaming Hot Pair in This 9-1-1: Lone Star Teaser
- 4. Looking for Alaska Bosses Reveal Why They Kept the Central Death a Mystery
- 5. The Flash's Hartley Sawyer Says Barry's Crisis News Will Be 'Catastrophic' for Ralph
- 6. BoJack Horseman Season 6 Review: Does BoJack Deserve a Happy Ending?
- 7. The Ultimate Game of Thrones Shopping Guide