Abigail’s Party
‘It’s not a question of ignorance, Laurence, it’s a question of taste’
in Screen plays
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Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh’s excruciating comedy of suburban manners remains one of the writer/director’s most enduring and iconic works. The play is a claustrophobic portrayal of a nightmarish drinks party, hosted by beautician Beverly and her workaholic estate-agent husband Laurence. Guests include working-class neighbours and an older, upper-middle-class divorcee, the mother of the off-stage adolescent punk Abigail. First produced in Hampstead in April 1977, its broadcast as a BBC Play for Today in November surprisingly attracted sixteen million viewers.

Drawing on primary and secondary sources, this chapter offers a textual and sociocultural analysis of Abigail’s Party (especially its portrayals of class and taste) and of critical and popular responses to its life on stage, television and DVD. Many regard it affectionately, but some critics damn it as cruel and snobbish—a ‘Hampstead sneer’ at aspirational suburban mores. While arguments about supercilious intent and audiences may have credibility in the context of the original theatre production, how pertinent are they in understanding the immense popularity of the television version? If the play reflected little more than North London elite prejudices, would it really be enjoyed by so many?

This chapter suggests that the appeal of Abigail’s Party may partly be due to apparent similarities with television situation comedy. This claim may seem to justify criticisms that this is a play of caricatures and lazy stereotypes, but sitcom is a genre that can, at its best, offer finely drawn characters and complex, tragi-comic narratives whose large audiences relish the frisson of recognition. Arguably, therefore, it was on television that Abigail’s Party realised its democratic and critical potential.

Screen plays

Theatre plays on British television

Editors: Amanda Wrigley and John Wyver

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