Beverly wears low-cut dresses, too much make-up and has a reputation as a man-eating monster. In Mike Leigh's modern classic, Abigail's Party
, she turns a social get-together between married couples into a virtual time bomb of emotional tension. Alison Steadman won two best actress awards for her portrayal of the bored, bitchy hostess in this savagely funny study of pretentious middle-class social manners. It also stars Tim Stern, Janine Duvitski, John Salthouse and Harriet Reynolds.
Running Time: 60 minutes + 6 minutes approx.
Originally screened as part of BBC's Play for Today
series in 1977, Abigail's Party
is among Mike Leigh's most celebrated pieces, with his then-wife Alison Steadman appallingly brilliant as what Alan Bennett described as the "brutal hostess" at a ghastly suburban soiree. The Abigail of the title never appears--rather, the dull thud of her lively teenage party forms a distant backdrop (and contrast) to an excruciating evening of chilled red wine, olives and the music of Demis Roussos. Steadman plays the overbearing Beverley, an Amazonian mass of frustrated sensuality in a low-cut party frock. Tim Stern is her small, stressed estate-agent husband. The guests are Janice Duvitski as Angela, a nurse whose quite spectacular gormlessness shields her from the stilted social awkwardness quietly raging around her, John Salthouse as Tony, her taciturn husband and Harriet Reynolds as Sue, the gangly and miserably nervous mother of Abigail.
Rather than play for gags, Leigh and his actors mercilessly turn the screw of embarrassment through a series of too-true-to-life exchanges of dialogue, the stuff of all our collective worst memories of encounters with neighbours, aunts and office colleagues. Often misread as a satirical parade of suburban grotesques, Abigail's Party probes deeper than that, touching on nerves of anxiety and repression that throb behind the net curtains of modern England, culminating not in farce but tragedy. Decades on, Abigail's Party is as psychologically true and close to home as ever--hard to bear but utterly brilliant.
On the DVD: Abigail's Party is perfectly reproduced here in all its 1970s garishness. The one extra is a short featurette, focussing on Alison Steadman's playing of Beverley, with comments from the original actors in the TV series and Peter York marvelling at her "paint-scraping" voice. --David Stubbs