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EDITIONS
Thursday, 25 July, 2002, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
Abigail's Party
Snobbery, sex and pilchard curry in a revival of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review)


MARK LAWSON:
Bonnie Greer, most people probably know it was a television play. It started on stage. Does it sit happily back there?

BONNIE GREER:
I have only been here for 16 years, so I didn't know anything about the television version or the big sort of thing there is about this legendary television version. I came to this play fresh. I think it's magnificent. I was quite, quite moved by it.

Over the years, I have actually come to understand a lot more about what Mike Leigh is doing. When I first saw some of his work when I first got here, I thought, "This guy is making fun of these people," but I have come to understand a lot of what he is doing in terms of looking at human beings, the minutiae of human beings. This play is about marriage, love, the loss of love, the search for love and the need for love. It's beautiful and I enjoyed it.

MARK LAWSON:
Hari, originally, it was predicting the Thatcherite voters, remarkably, and originally directed by Mike Leigh. Both those have gone, the contemporary context and his direction. Does it still stand up?

HARI KUNZRU:
I had a diametrically opposite experience from Bonnie. I found it almost impossible to grab hold of this. Going to the theatre to see it was like worshipping at the shrine of this particular icon of Britishness. This word "Britishness" is often associated with Mike Leigh, and that seems to decode as an analysis of class.

This is a play obsessed with class and obsessed with policing certain sorts of class boundaries. It has these very aspirational central couple, who were trying to better themselves in a Thatcherite way. I agree that most of Mike Leigh's work does have a real compassion for his characters, but I didn't get this. Seeing Abigail's Party again, I had a sense of a Hampstead sneer going on, and I found myself quite ambivalent about it.

MARK LAWSON:
Thatcher had only been party leader for two years when he created this. I thought it wasn't about snobbery and class but about marriage. I had never realised that to such an extent. There are three marriages on stage, three marriages referred to among their parents, and all of them are the most savage associations between two human beings.

BONNIE GREER:
Absolutely. What Mike doesn't do is say, for instance, what David Hare will do. David Hare will give a big speech about what the play is about or give big shape, and Leigh piles on tiny things, piles it on, never telling you what to think or feel.

TOM PAULIN:
I have to say that it was great to be back in the Hampstead Theatre. I see the point about the Hampstead sneer, but it was a terrific theatre and it's moving on to a brand new theatre. That was wonderful. It's terrifically well acted, but really this is middle-class anxiety mocking the aspirational working-class people getting out of the working class.
Abigail's Party at the Hampstead Theatre
It's this awful British obsession with social class. These are characters who are impersonated by the actors. There are no parts to act. It's just a terrible joke. It's all about bad taste and class anxiety. Absolutely awful revolting, terrible, desultory stupid things about people's taste in clothes and houses and anything.

BONNIE GREER:
I grew up in the suburbs, in that environment, and I sat there. Everything in it is absolutely true, Tom. That's what's beautiful about it, because to pay attention to that sort of detail, you don't do that out of sneering or hate.

TOM PAULIN:
I just recently stayed in the most dreadful hotel that seemed to have come out of a Mike Leigh play. In human beings, you need comic energy and wildness and anarchy for comedy.

BONNIE GREER:
That's exactly what makes it, the bits and pieces. You bring a definition to it, that's what you get if you are class obsessed.

HARI KUNZRU:
It's not that. From a British perspective, it's not just a play about class but about "the 70s". That blank decade. They got a lot of laughs from the decor, from the pineapples on sticks, for example. All these things are significant. All from the 70s.

MARK LAWSON:
What impressed me is there has been this constant attack on Mike Leigh, often led by Tom Paulin on this programme, that they are caricatures and a series of ticks.

I thought it was subtle, the point in which the real party is going on elsewhere and every reference they make to the party down the road, a teenager's first party, is what they really want to do. It's about their envy of those teenage characters. That was subtle. There are the lovely characters. The nurse has this manner where she pats someone on the back.

BONNIE GREER:
At the beginning of it, when he plays "Love to love you, baby", and this woman who has never had real love in her life, is standing there waiting for love to walk through the door. She doesn't get it.

TOM PAULIN:
They are complete stereotypes without any sort of individual energy in them. There are jokes seen from the outside.

BONNIE GREER: She is in opposition to everybody on that stage.

TOM PAULIN:
I thought it was hysterically misogynistic. It's the women who are dominating all the time. The men are quite decent and boring fellows.

MARK LAWSON:
Tom, the men are treated exactly equally.

TOM PAULIN:
No, I don't think so. They don't take on the power of the women.

BONNIE GREER:
How can you make a play misogynistic when at the end of the play the woman has actually crumbled in absolute totally destroyed by the loss of a man she actually loves but she couldn't express that love.

TOM PAULIN:
I didn't notice that.

BONNIE GREER:
Wake up, Tom!

MARK LAWSON:
Hari, I hadn't expected to be impressed by this. I went thinking that everyone would say, "It's wonderful on TV but doesn't work on stage." There are points where there is a problem with that, but it has real tragic power at the end, I thought?

HARI KUNZRU:
Um, yes and no. Lawrence's demise at the end of the play kind of gives you one of these moments of stillness at the end of the drama. That didn't seem to me to have the kind of elevated thing that I wanted it to have. I defer from Tom, it is very well observed. These people are beautifully nuanced. But it's a conservative message.

MARK LAWSON:
Tom, how can it be too well observed?

TOM PAULIN:
Because it's a series of details, so that everyone is judged according to cliches they use and the clothes they wear and the drinks they have. But I do believe that human beings are free of that and have a uniqueness about them.

MARK LAWSON:
My theory is Tom doesn't like Mike Leigh's work. He is a Mike Leigh character. It's an experiment that went wrong! Abigail's Party continues at the Hampstead Theatre in London. The television version is available as a BBC video.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Panel
18 Apr 02 | Panel
02 May 02 | Panel
19 Jul 02 | Panel
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