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Play For Today

Abigail’s Party

Obviously we could have found some better screengrabs than this, but... well, you've seen the bloody thing enough times anyway, haven't you?By Mike Leigh. Along with Scum, one of the few Play for Todays to have made a sizeable impact into popular culture. Alison Steadman gets grotesquely down to Donna Summer before hosting the half-hearted suburban drinks do from hell, revealing the proto-Thatcherite anti-social mores of the newly-minted suburban middle classes in the process. With Tim Stern as Beverley’s anti-social husband Laurence (whose weak heart condition eventually gets the better of him in the final confrontation) and meek Janine Duvitski as Ange (with thick husband Tone in tow). Add nervous teacher Sue – escaping from the titular party her daughter is holding next door – and a pentagon of mutual loathing and incomprehension is drawn among the Dralon.

Something of a cult these days (to put it mildly), rep companies up and down the land recreate it in minute detail – rare is the production, it seems, in which the leading actress will dare to move away from Steadman’s original swooping Essex intonation, or the decor away from the original MFI shelving/Tretchikoff painting/ice-and-slice chic. It’s a bit of an odd state of affairs, all told, that what began as a series of improvisations (the way Leigh always works with his actors) has become set in stone, as it were. This can tend to give the whole thing a seventies-in-aspic air that trivialises it if you’re not careful.

OK, the performances tend to grotesque characterisation, but the central thrust – of the dimmer-yet-forceful lower middle classes steamrollering the more reserved, thoughtful types on their way up, and disintegrating their own lives in the process – is more important than the oft-quoted Roussos specifics. Since these references litter the dialogue, and any major update would doubtless fail to match the wit of the original, this remains a problem for the play when seen today.

There’s also the problem that, in mocking the ignorant snobbery of the social arriviste, it panders to the entrenched snobbery of the inherited middle classes. Or, as Kenneth Williams, something of a snob himself but hailing from a working class background, put it: ‘Hampstead sophisticates knowingly laughing at all the bad taste lines. “Oh, a bottle of Beaujolais! How lovely! I’ll just pop it in the fridge…” And they fell about, loving their superiority.’ Any comedy of manners depends on a sense of superiority for the audience to some extent, but the use of snobbery to make a point about class aspirations puts the whole enterprise on ground as dodgy as poor Laurence’s ticker. To add to the confusion, many modern fans of the play (or those with broadsheet columns, at least) treat it as an illustration of how backward society was in the 197os. Ah, if only Play for Today were still about, we’ve got a great idea for an ensemble social satire. Let’s call it The G2-ers

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Lee James Turnock

    May 24, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Dennis Potter hated it and wrote a scathing review in his then-capacity as a television critic, and I’m inclined to agree with him. I get the point and everything, but there’s just nothing at the core but sneering and finger-pointing loathing.

  2. dom

    July 25, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Leigh is from the lower middle class background that the characters inhabit. Who else is he going to write about? Find the Mike Leigh play that doesn’t paint a largely unflattering portrait of people. People like Kenneth Williams & Dennis Potter ( two men who clearly had disdain & pity for people in general ) just felt uncomfortable with the honesty of it. Leigh is a cynical writer, but a compassionate one.

  3. Paul Bovey

    January 7, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    I think the Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? episode ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’ offers a better critique of the social climbers of the time (described by Terry Collier as “promoted from the lower divisions”).

  4. Glenn A

    May 2, 2016 at 10:23 pm

    The Play For Today everyone remembers, and great fun to watch now, far more so than some Marxist polemic about a strike in a factory in Skelmersdale.

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