Abigail’s Party: Creating the Hostess from Hell

How do you take on a role that has been captured in the collective national memory? That’s what Alison Steadman did as Beverly in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party in 1977. Rebecca Birch decided to do it her own way, says Melissa Blease.

Demis Roussos, cheese and pineapple on sticks, and… “Would you like a little top-up, Ange?” You know whose party we’re at before I say we’re at a party, don’t you? Mike Leigh’s 1977 ‘comedy of modern manners’ satirising the tastes, aspirations and social mores of the 1970s British middle class is arguably one of the most (in)famous plays in 20th-century contemporary theatre. Relying heavily on the British taste for schadenfreude for laughs, there’s something deliciously evil about being privy to the kind of claustrophobic, on-the-verge-of acrimonious social gathering such as the one Leigh depicts in so much detail, wince-inducingly awkward and at times darker than the hostess’s black olives which, says Leigh, are mentioned early on to establish Beverly’s penile fixation. Crikey! But ah, yes: Beverly…

You can’t say ‘Abigail’s Party’ without thinking of British stage icon Alison Steadman, who aced the role in Leigh’s original production before the BBC’s televised Play for Today version firmly established Steadman as the ultimate hostess with less-than-mostess – and, surely, a tough act to follow for any actor?

“Actually, I haven’t watched Alison being Bev!” says Rebecca Birch, who will be giving us her very own Beverly when London Classic Theatre’s highly acclaimed tour of Abigail’s Party lands at Theatre Royal Bath from 17 July. “I know how remarkable Steadman was in the role. But I thought, I’m not going to watch her because she’s a brilliant actor, and she made the part her own, and I’m going to end up copying her – and I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to do it my way. So I based my take on the story, and the fabulous script, and the bond I have with the other actors, and we’ve just sort of gone from there.”

Indeed, Rebecca’s Bev is garnering the very opposite of complaints. “Beverly, played by the brilliant Rebecca Birch, stole the show for me, making a hilarious spectacle of her character’s domineering, manipulative and arrogant tendencies without neglecting the insecurities underpinning them,” raved one theatre critic (for Varsity). Rebecca: do you actually like Beverly Moss?

“Actually, yes I do!” she says. “I really like her, but I feel sorry for her because I’ve really got to know her. There’s a deep-rooted sadness in her that’s masked by this big, bright, bubbly, overbearing personality, and all that comes from simply wanting to be liked, and wanting everybody to have a good time. And she and her husband Laurence are in a very unhappy marriage but they’re trying to prove that they’re not unhappy by being this sort of ‘presentable couple’. When I told my friends I got the role, a lot of them said, ‘wow, she’s such a monster!’ But I think that’s quite unfair, and actually quite unfeminist! Even in the opening scene, Laurence is chipping and digging away at her, going on about how she can’t drive, and hates doing the shopping, and doesn’t do this or that, and for me, it’s just like, leave her alone! But all five characters are pretty awful in their own way”.

Bev and her belligerent husband ask their new neighbours (naïve nurse Angela and her brutish, despondent husband Tony) to their house for drinks with anxious, circumspect fellow neighbour Susan, whose 15-year-old daughter Abigail is throwing a house party. They’re not exactly a jolly bunch of merrymakers and yes, their “pretty awful” characteristics are pushed to the fore in Leigh’s fast-paced, artfully hyperreal script. But… surely part of the fascination lies in the fact that most of us can see a little bit of ourselves in them? “Definitely!” says Rebecca. “And we can hear that in the audience, every night – the laughter is often recognition. Everyone can see themselves in at least one of the five of the characters, for better or worse”.

Recognition, fascination and itch-inducing discomfort played out against a detailed snapshot of ‘aspirational’ 1970s domestic life

Recognition, fascination and itch-inducing discomfort played out against a meticulously detailed snapshot of ‘aspirational’ 1970s domestic life; this dramatic party holds an enduring appeal, it seems. “The play still deeply resonates with people,” says Rebecca. “Theatre is really tough at the moment, still suffering in the post- Covid world, so Abigail’s Party was a really smart choice; it gets some people in for the nostalgia factor alone, but we’re also attracting young people who have never seen it and they’re all loving it.”

Rebecca has positive plans regarding how to spend her time in Bath. “I absolutely love the Thermae Spa; I can easily spend all day there,” she says. “I also really love the Royal Crescent Hotel, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of their recent renovations, Montagu’s Mews.” Ah, so you’re no stranger to the neighbourhood? “I’ve played at the Theatre Royal Bath twice before and it’s one of my favourite theatres. I first visited with Noël Coward’s Relative Values directed by Trevor Nunn back in 2013 – I played the funny little maid. And then I was back as youngest daughter Rosie in Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should. It’s lovely to be coming back in a leading role – really exciting”.

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Exciting for those of us who can’t wait to be reintroduced to Beverly too. But why should those who have not ‘met’ this formidable host make sure they’re on the guest list? “Come and spend an evening in my/Beverly’s living room! Let me host you, come on in,” says Rebecca. “The play starts with me setting up for the evening ahead, and I instantly feel a connection with the audience, and I want to take that audience on the journey with me. If you’re of a certain vintage, expect to recognise the set and the props – we had a guy in the audience recently who shouted out, ‘my mum’s got that coffee cup!’ Expect to laugh a lot – and maybe expect to think a lot, too. I saw a version of the play many years ago at the Hornchurch in Essex and I came away thinking, life’s too short, you’ve got to say what you feel and do what you want to do – don’t keep things buried, which I think is what all the people at Abigail’s Party are doing; nobody actually says what they really think or want, and honestly, life’s too short not to do that.”

“Would you like a little top-up, Ange?” You’re going to need it…

London Classic Theatre presents Abigail’s Party at Theatre Royal Bath from 17 – 19 July
Visit theatreroyal.org.uk to find out more