Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’ was primarily shown on television and wasn’t initially meant for the stage, until it was realised how successful it was.
The plot is based around a mirror of two party’s, one involving 5 adults all living in the same estate but of very contrasting backgrounds and classes which Mike Leigh also depicts, and the other of the sixteen year old daughter of Sue, who’s organised a typical teenage ‘rave’. The essence of the play is that generally speaking the younger generations should be observed at parties but in Mike Leigh’s example the irony is that the adult’s seem just as drunk and obscene as what is imagined next door. This is where the comedy arises and is developed throughout the play as the adults keep a close eye on the teenagers but there is no one to observe the adults.
Mike Leigh has also drawn the attention of the audience by focusing on class by contrasting the classes of the characters, Beverly and Lawrence who are aspiring for true middle class, a poor newly married couple and a middle class divorcee. This situation in itself is controversial due to Sue not being nearly as wealthy as Beverly and Lawrence but being by far the most cultured of the group. Another example of this would be shown in Ang, her occupation as a nurse can actually be called a well known and accepted profession, although she has little money and isn’t well cultured or travelled, as an outsider you can see the intelligence that Mike Leigh has tried to depict over the other characters.
The play is composed of two acts, both of which surprisingly end with the focus on Sue, the most timid character. I think this was purposeful on Leigh’s behalf as although she seems to be a pretty insignificant character she holds a lot of unknown power over the people in her company. Especially Lawrence who realises her class is above his and he aspires to be like her by seeking her approval.
As the play develops so does the amount of alcohol consumed and the tension between the two married couples. Especially from Beverly and Lawrence’s points of view as they start verbally abusing each other in the presence of their guests, which I believe would not occur otherwise as Ang, Tony and Sue would realise their true characters. Therefore I could also state that the play is structured around class, parties and also alcohol.
Everything in the play including props, lighting and sound effects is ultra realistic. The set includes real food and drink with a working record player and lamps, which provide the naturalistic lighting throughout the whole play, and the constant thumping from next door really makes the situation believable.
To enhance the realism, Mike Leigh also wrote the play in ‘real time’, this means that the duration of the play is natural over the period of an evening, with no days or hours skipped.
Another tool used by Mike Leigh to develop true realism is the use of colloquial dialect. There is no stylised or poetic language and also no imagery used. It is written so the audience can easily place themselves in the character’s positions.
Discussing the structure of the play is hard considering the definitions of ‘A Well Made Play’
1.) Exposition (introduction of characters and situations)
2.) Conflict (a huge problem is bought to the surface)
3.) Complications (the problem develops)
4.) Climax (the most dramatic, and tension filled part of the play)
5.) Dï¿½nouement (the resolution)
The exposition occurs between pages 1 and 13 when the characters are introduced to each other and also the audience. This is the period when the audience makes their own assumptions of the characters, and they can recognise different relationships and tensions. This is when we also realise about Lawrence’s hectic lifestyle and frequent suffering of heartburn so that his heart attack doesn’t come as a complete shock and the audience understand and sympathise more.
The conflict is primarily to do with Beverly and Lawrence’s relationship and the strain that it is clearly under. But we also see the stress between Angela and Tony periodically.
The complication is when the tension builds as more and more alcohol is consumed predominantly between Lawrence and Beverly.
The climax is clearly Lawrence’s heart attack, which is the outcome, of a stressful job, a nagging wife, being polite to unwelcome guests the consumption of alcohol and the constant ‘thumping’ of the party next door. This is when the focus and drive of the play changes completely from the future life these characters have built themselves to the present situation.
Lastly the dï¿½nouement. In ‘Abigail’s Party’ there doesn’t seem to be a definite resolution, the play is left on a cliff hanger as the audience is ‘left in the dark’ as to whether the conflicts have been resolved and if not the final outcome of the situation.
‘Abigail’s Party’ is referred to as a comedy, but of various types, it contains a slight element of black comedy in the fact that Lawrence has a heart attack. But throughout the play, Leigh develops another form of comedy, not through one-liners, but due to the characters’ dialogue and movement etc. For example, Tony’s monosyllabic answers, Angela’s lack of social etiquette, Sue’s shyness and total dislike of the situation, Lawrence’s frequent cultural references even though everyone can see he is uneducated in Shakespeare and Beethoven and is simply attempting and failing to reach a higher social class (nouveaux riches). And Beverly’s clear lack of self-control concerning Tony and insulting Angela’s lipstick.
‘Abigail’s Party’ is essentially written as a comedy, until the end, which presents more opportunities, and shows a more tragic and retrospective feel. This play is unique in that it is completely down to the director as to how they depict it as it can be of two extremes tragic or comic, excluding Lawrence’s death, which is clearly comic with the reference to Ang’s cramp etc. In the production I saw, it was comic and I thought this worked well but having considered it to be a tragic play I think this could be just as effective.