Abigail's Party is a play for stage and television devised and directed in 1977 by Mike Leigh. It is a suburban situation comedy of manners, and a satire on the aspirations and tastes of the new middle class that emerged in Britain in the 1970s. The play developed in lengthy improvisations during which Mike Leigh explored the characters with the actors, but did not always reveal the incidents that would occur during the play. The production opened in April 1977 at the Hampstead Theatre, and returned after its initial run in the summer of 1977, 104 performances in all. A recording was arranged at the BBC as a Play for Today, produced by Margaret Matheson for BBC Scotland and transmitted in November 1977.
The television version was abridged from over two hours to 104 minutes; the record played by Beverly in the original stage production was "Light My Fire" by José Feliciano and in the TV production it was the 1976 hit "Forever and Ever" by Demis Roussos - Leigh had to replace nearly all the music with artists recorded on British labels, for copyright reasons, in case the BBC sold the play to the United States. As José Feliciano became Demis Roussos, so Elvis Presley gave way to Tom Jones. Other music used in the BBC production included "Love to Love You Baby" by Donna Summer (sung here by Clare Torry) and a piece of library music by Robert Farnon entitled "Blue Theme".
The original play starred Alison Steadman as Beverly, and Tim Stern as her husband Laurence. They are holding a drinks party for their new neighbours, Angela (Janine Duvitski) and her husband Tony (John Salthouse). They also invite Susan (Thelma Whiteley), another neighbour. Abigail herself is never seen – she is Susan's 15-year-old daughter, who is holding her first teenage party next door. For the television version the original cast reprised their roles, with the exception of Thelma Whiteley, who was replaced by Harriet Reynolds.
Each of the original cast largely devised the back story to their character. John Salthouse brought his early career as a footballer with Crystal Palace to that of Tony. According to Leigh, discussions at the improvised sessions included whether Beverly's name should have a third 'e' or not. The most complex relationship was worked out between Angela and Tony. Little of this is disclosed during the narrative, although something of it becomes apparent when Angela steps in to care first for Sue, then the stricken Laurence, and the centre of power between the couple starts to shift noticeably.
The terrain is 'the London side of Essex', 'theoretical Romford' according to Leigh. Beverly Moss invites her new neighbours, Angela and Tony, who moved into the road just two weeks ago, over for drinks. She has also invited her neighbour Susan (Sue), divorced for three years, whose fifteen-year-old daughter Abigail is holding a party at home. Beverly's husband Laurence comes home late from work, just before the guests arrive. The gathering starts off in a stiff, insensitive, British middle-class way as the virtual strangers tentatively gather, until Beverly and Laurence start sniping at each other. As Beverly serves more drinks and the alcohol takes effect, Beverly flirts more and more overtly with Tony, as Laurence sits impotently by. After a tirade about the artwork 'Wings of Love', Laurence suffers a fatal heart attack. Within this simple framework, all of the obsessions, prejudices, fears and petty competitiveness of the protagonists are ruthlessly exposed.
Beverly, Tony and, to a lesser extent Angela, all speak with an accent centred on Essex or Estuary English. Laurence's accent, more non-descript and less regional, makes him sound slightly more educated, while Sue's is much nearer to Received Pronunciation.
Sue represents the middle class, being the ex-wife of an architect and living in one of the older houses on the street. She also brings a bottle of wine, and has not yet eaten, indicating that she is expecting dinner, as opposed to an extended evening of drinks. The others present have already had their "tea". Beverly and Laurence represent the aspirational lower middle class, and Tony and Angela the "new arrivals" are also lower middle class, but Tony is less successful than Laurence. Despite their similar background, Laurence seeks to differentiate between himself and Tony by highlighting the differences in their general level of culture, and makes a couple of condescending comments directed at him, and/or for Sue's benefit. For example, Laurence shows off a leather-bound collected works of Shakespeare to Sue (which we know are unread), after pointedly asking Tony if he reads, insinuating that he doesn't.
In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, Abigail's Party was placed 11th. It also appeared in a Radio Times poll to find the top 40 greatest TV shows on British television, published in August 2003.
Some critics, such as Tom Paulin, have responded more negatively, saying that Abigail's Party appears to represent a middle-class schadenfreude, with the only true middle class character, Sue, looking on at the antics of the couples with disdain. Likewise Dennis Potter wrote a critical review of the play in The Sunday Times, claiming that it was “based on nothing more edifying than rancid disdain, for it is a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes”. Leigh has rejected this, describing it as a tragi-comedy which is "sympathetic to all the characters, whatever their foibles, not least Beverly... The play is a lamentation, not a sneer". He has also argued that the characters (Beverly and Laurence in particular) reflected the real-life behaviour of aspiring couples in mid-1970s suburbia.
Interviewed in 2009, writer Leigh said, "Of course I recognise the enduring popularity of Abigail's Party. It still hits a nerve about the way we live. It's real even though it's apparently a heightened and comic play. It's a reflection of the realities of how we live on a several different levels. It's about aspirationalism and materialism, love and relationships. Like much of my work, it's about the disease I call "the done thing" – basically, keeping up with the Joneses. It's actually quite a complex play. People may not analyse its complexity but it's so popular precisely for that reason."
In March 2012, a new revival of the play directed by Lindsay Posner opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Starring Jill Halfpenny as Beverly, Joe Absolom as Tony, Natalie Casey as Angela, Susannah Harker as Sue and Andy Nyman as Laurence, it subsequently transferred to Wyndham's Theatre in the West End. Commenting on the character, Halfpenny said, "To her mind Beverley isn’t a monster and even warrants sympathy. “When you learn about her upbringing – her mother and father haven’t spoken to her for 20 years – you see why a woman who’s been brought up like that and carries so many insecurities could take them out on others."
In March 2017, a new revival of Abigail's Party opened at the Theatre Royal Bath as a 40 years anniversary production, starring Amanda Abbington as Beverly, Ciarán Owens as Tony, Charlotte Mills as Angela, Rose Keegan as Sue and Ben Caplan as Laurence.