Twitter Facebook RSS Feed
No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 3rd August 2002

Abigail's Party / Witness

The Spectator - 3rd August 2002

Abigail's Party, Mike Leigh's hilarious comedy about social embarrassment, received its premier at Hampstead Theatre in 1977 so it's appropriate that a production of the same play should close the venue before it moves to its new home in 2003. If you're a fan of this play--and who hasn't seen the BBC version with Alison Steadman?--this is a production you won't want to miss. Everything about it, from the set design to the choice of music, smacks of quality. It's been playing to full houses since it opened and will almost certainly transfer to the West End.

The 70s costumes are so authentic they look almost contemporary--we're in the midst of a 70s revival, after all--but it's two other things that really bring home the fact that Abigail's Party is 25 years old. First, there are the property prices. At one point, a character called Angela boasts of having got the price of her house reduced by a thousand pounds. My immediate reaction was 'That's nothing to brag about' until it emerged that this amounted to a reduction of nearly 5%. That's right, Angela and her husband managed to buy a house in London for £20,000! These days, you can expect to pay that much in stamp duty.

The other thing that really dates this play is that Angela's husband, Tony, is a former player for Crystal Palace. I don't want to be too un-chivalrous here, but footballers' wives have dramatically improved in the past 25 years. As played by Rosie Cavaliero, Angela is a mousy, wallflower type who watches passively while Tony is swept off his footballers legs by Beverly, her predatory neighbour. The funniest moment in the play comes when Beverly insists that her husband, a buttoned-up estate agent played by Jeremy Swift, dances with Angela. Rosie Cavaliero leaps up and starts waving her hands about like a traffic cop on Spaghetti Junction during rush hour. My wife, who was sitting beside me, was so embarrassed on Angela's behalf she had to look away. Overall, Rosie Cavaliero gives a brilliant comic performance, managing to make Susan seem both slightly cartoonish and very human at the same time. Every member of the cast deserves praise, particularly Elizabeth Barrington as Beverly, but Cavaliero is truly outstanding.

My one complaint is that the appeal of Abigail's Party is unambiguously snobbish. All the characters, with the exception of Abigail's poor, benighted mother, are either working class or lower-middle class and most of the jokes revolve around their hopelessly misguided attempts to posh themselves up. For instance, at one point Beverly tries to impress Abigail's middle class mother by taking the bottle of red wine she's just brought round and popping it in the fridge. Watching the play in NW3, surrounded by doctors and lawyers roaring with laughter at every faux pas, I felt slightly uncomfortable. It was as if we were being given a license to indulge in a pleasure that's normally completely taboo--namely, laughing at our social inferiors. I'm sure these same people would be the first to condemn such snobbery if they thought about it for a second, but because Mike Leigh is a fully paid up member of the liberal intelligentsia and, let's face it, one of our most gifted playwrights, it's somehow okay.

Witness, a new work by a Swedish playwright called Cecilia Parkert, allows us to indulge in another guilty pleasure, this one even more taboo. The only character in this one-woman play is a Swedish interpreter who's been forced to translate the horror stories of a group of Yugoslavian refugees. Witness presents itself as a difficult but nonetheless important play, an experience people should force themselves to go through for their own moral edification. Yet the appeal of these terrible stories, most of which involve rape and genital mutilation, is quite clearly pornographic. The playwright is keenly aware of this, too, teasing the audience by telegraphing the sheer awfulness of the revelations to come and then letting us have it, right between the legs, so to speak. Far from being a grim duty, listening to these stories is actually quite exciting, like reading something by the Marquis de Sade.

The tension between the respectable surface of Witness and its troubling, primordial undercurrents, threatened to spill over into comedy when one of the Gate's blue-stocking administrators climbed up on stage afterwards and earnestly thanked us for sitting through it. I was reminded of Chris Morris's spoof documentary about paedophilia in which the presenter assumed a pained expression and warned us of the shocking images to come before unveiling the sort of titillating package that would have had Mary Whitehouse frothing at the mouth. Witness is precisely the kind of grim civics lesson involving stark, documentary footage that gets surprisingly high ratings on Channel 4. It's truly remarkable how many people are willing to expose themselves to such "difficult" material. Expect an adaptation of Witness to appear on television within the next twelve months.

[ FIXED LINK ] Bookmark and Share

Twitter Ninestiles School has a staggered lunch hour — only way to feed 1,400 kids. That means some kids are heading to lun… link  (10 hours ago)


The shocking truth about Jordan Peterson by Wesley Yang -
The intellectual dark web by Bari Weiss -
How identity politics is harming the sciences by Heather Mac Donald -
The fall of the German Empire by Ross Douthat -
How Tom Wolfe became Tom Wolfe by Michael Lewis - Vanity Fair
The neuro-diversity case for free speech by Geoffrey Miller -
The Age of Outrage by Jonathan Haidt -
The Warlock Hunt by Claire Berlinski -
Is classical liberalism conservative? by Yarom Hazony -
The Implosion of Western Liberalism by Patrick Lee Miller -
The Eton of the East End - Daily Mail
The reactionary temptation by Andrew Sullivan -
The book that scandalised New York intellectuals by Louis Menand -
To understand Britain today, look to the 17th Century by Adrian Wooldridge -
The crisis in France by Christopher Caldwell -
A Visit to Michaela School by Patrick Alexander -
Why parenting may not matter by Brian Boutwell -
Trump Establishment's Cultural Significance Explained by Michael Wolff -
Branching histories of the 2016 referendum by Dominic Cummings -
Putin's Real Long Game by Molly K McKew -
The Flight 93 Election by Publius Decius Mus -
How the education gap is tearing politics apart by David Runciman -
What's wrong with identity politics by Graeme Archer -
Grammars and the grain of truth by Jonathan Porter
Anti-Brexit: Britain's new class war by John O'Sullivan -
The English Revolt by Robert Tombs -
Democracies end when they are too democratic by Andrew Sullivan -
Human beings really are making progress by Steven Pinker -
What ISIS really wants by Graeme Wood -
A society ripe for Submission by Douglas Murray -
Why I'm a Conservative Teacher by Jonathan Porter -
Corbyn's Inconvenient Truth – He wanted the IRA to win -
Why I've become Tory scum by Tony Parsons -
Inside Westminster's free school -
Robert Conquest obit -
Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite – it's so much worse than that -


Andrew Lilico
Andrew Sullivan
Arts and Letters Daily
Bagehot's Notebook
BBC News
BBC Sport
Benedict Brogan
Brendan O'Neill
Bruce Anderson
Coffee House
Conservative Home
Damian McBride
Damian Thompson
Dan Hodges
Daniel Hannon
Ed West
Frank Furedi
Guido Fawkes
Harry Phibbs
Iain Dale
Iain Martin
James Delingpole
James Wolcott
Joe Murphy
John Rentoul
Labour List
Mark Steyn
Matt Drudge
Mehdi Hasan
Melanie Phillips
Michael Wolff
Nick Cohen
Nick Robinson
Nikki Finke
Paul Waugh
Peter Hitchens
Political Betting
Right Minds
Rob Long
Rod Liddle
Sophy Ridge
Stephen Pollard
The Arts Desk
The Corner
The Daily Beast
The First Post
The Omnivore
The Onion
Tim Shipman
Tim Stanley
Tom Shone


AA Gill
Aidan Hartley
Allison Pearson
Allister Heath
AO Scott
Boris Johnson
Charles Moore
Cosmo Landesman
Daniel Finkelstein
David Brooks
Fraser Nelson
George Monbiot
Giles Coren
Henry Winter
James Delingpole
Jan Moir
Janan Ganesh
Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Warner
Jim White
Jonathan Freedland
Lloyd Evans
Manohla Dargis
Martin Samuel
Mary Ann Sieghart
Matthew d'Ancona
Matthew Norman
Maureen Dowd
Michiko Kakutani
Owen Jones
Patrick O'Flynn
Paul Krugman
Peter Bradshaw
Peter Oborne
Philip Collins
Polly Toynbee
Quentin Letts
Rachel Johnson
Rod Liddle
Roy Greenslade
Tim Montgomerie
Trevor Kavanagh
UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on

  • Buy the book on

  • UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on

  • Buy the book on

  • Audio Book Cover

  • Buy the audio book from
    Whole Story Audio
  • DVD Cover

  • Buy the DVD from

  • Buy the DVD from

  • IMdb Page on the film