by Allan Fish
(UK 1977 102m) DVD1/2
Anyone for Demis Roussos?
p Margaret Matheson d/w Mike Leigh play Mike Leigh art Kenneth Sharp
Alison Steadman (Beverly), Janine Duvitski (Angela), Tim Stern (Laurence), John Salthouse (Tony) Harriet Reynolds (Sue),
Remember when you were a kid and one of your parents dragged you off to visit some elderly or distant relative you’d never heard of and forced you to sit there for hours before taking your leave? Or the weekend trips to see grandparents and the endless periods of fidgeting and being told to sit still while you endured the torture on the sofa and just wanted to get home to finish whatever game you happened to be playing before you were so unceremoniously dragged from your room? Well, imagine that discomfort, multiply it by the square of infinity and you still haven’t got within light years of the discomfort of Mike Leigh’s seminal work. Some films are to be watched and savoured, while others are to be endured.
Based upon the successful Hampstead Theatre production, Abigail’s Party details the cocktail party of Laurence and Beverly, a thirtysomething married couple in London’s suburbia. He is harassed at work and seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and is not helped by the fact that at home he is bullied and terrorised by his vacuous wife. Beverly is one of the moving picture’s greatest adverts for euthanasia, a horrendous brainless harridan whose idea of sophistication is to wear a dress so ghastly that it turns stomachs, and to keep a fag in her mouth and a shot glass in her hand. There are three guests, including another married couple; Beverly’s friend, nurse Angela, and her one-time footballer husband Tony, whose dialogue is strictly of the monosyllabic kind and who, quite understandably, wishes himself elsewhere. The elsewhere turns out to be another party going on next door, that of the eponymous but unseen Abigail, a fifteen year old, whose mother Sue makes up the quintet for the party from hell.
As for Abigail, as Deems Taylor once said of Tchakovsky’s Nutcracker, there’s nothing left for her but the title. Yet though unseen she’s the most desirous person in the entire piece. She’s enjoying herself, playing tonsil hockey and, if one correctly reads into the comments made by Laurence and Tony when coming back to their own do, probably flat on her back engaging in a healthy boinkfest. And though the idea of being surrounded by sexually obsessed teenagers seems a distancing one, if faced with the alternative of Beverly’s company you’d hotfoot over there quicker than Usain Bolt.
The only normal character here is poor Sue, literally bullied into taking drinks until she throws up. Angela is the sort of girl one could imagine as the perpetual wallflower, yet somehow she’s got herself a husband, and he is shocked to find that he’s been taken to an even greater hell than his marriage. No wonder he’s anxious to get over to the teens and, one assumes, take up the offer of sex, for one can imagine the marriage bed is colder than Siberia in winter. Then there’s the main duo. Laurence is a tragic figure, a short, unassuming man who’s been bullied and browbeaten into submission by his literally nauseating spouse, forever on the edge as he manages what seems an ever more depressing estate agent’s job and just wants an excuse to escape Beverly. She sees him as merely the provider for her luxuries, and speaks badly of him at any opportunity. Sure, he may be boring, and epitomises the coffee table culture of the middle class social climbers, with the complete works of Shakespeare on the shelf to look at the nice binding rather than to read. Yet better his boring pretensions to culture than her simply excruciating attempts at sophistication. Beverly is simply the most cringe-inducing person one could ever wish to meet and, when the tragedy of the final act takes place it’s a relief not merely for the victim but for the audience. All the performances are spot on, but let’s face it, it’s Steadman you recall. A year earlier she played the wife to the husband from hell, Roger Sloman’s Keith Pratt in Nuts in May. Here, she gets to call the tune, and it’s to Demis Roussos. I speak for everyone else when I say “get me out of here!”