Beverly's Nibbles Are Still the Best Around
Janet Street-Porter, Editor-At-Large, The Independent (London, England)
Abigail's Party, which opens at the Hampstead Theatre this week, is surely one of the most important plays of the past 25 years. It's so easy to seize on Tom Stoppard, Howard Brenton and David Hare as political writers, but Mike Leigh is far more subversive than all of them.
Because he created a huge hit there is a tendency to somehow diminish his achievement - and middle-class critics often claim that Leigh patronises his characters, satirising their working-class aspirations and lack of formal education. The fact is, people are worse educated today than when he created the play at Hampstead with the original cast back in 1977. And it would never have been filmed for television but for a drama about Northern Ireland by Caryl Churchill which was cancelled for legal reasons, leaving an empty BBC studio and a gap in the schedule. When repeated for a third time, it attracted no fewer than 16 million viewers, probably one of the highest audiences ever for a single play. Last year there were 49 amateur productions of Abigail's Party in the UK alone, performed from Barnstaple to Edinburgh, the Isle of Man to Brockley. And the monstrous Beverly appears in Greek, Dutch, German, French and even Icelandic. Abigail's Party is part of the drama GCSE. It has spawned a genre of drawing-room comedy, where a night of torture unfolds in a working-class home in which the upwardly mobile are mocked by their peers. A recent example at the Royal Court, The People are Friendly by Michael Wynne, collected excellent reviews and ended last night. To me it just seemed like second division Mike Leigh, gratefully received by an audience fed-up with grim realism and social rant.
Like all great works of art, Abigail's Party is a perfect vehicle for critics and semiologists to project all their pet theories on to - it just soaks them up. Log on to any of the 4,000-plus internet mentions of the play and you can have many happy hours of fun howling with laughter at what Beverly represents to these "experts", from "alpha female" to "an impersonation of a person". The word "nibbles" has been picked over more times than those cheese and pineapple chunks ever were in the original production. Beverly's house has been under the spotlight, too, and with a downstairs toilet it clearly represents the home of the upwardly mobile working classes. To many fans, Beverly personifies all that is vile and materially grasping and only rivals Bette Midler in her status as a gay icon. It would be tempting to conclude that Beverly was created by Mike Leigh to demonstrate the shallowness of suburban values and emptiness of lives based around acquisition and upward mobility.
But the reason why Abigail's Party still works after all these years, whether it's played by amateurs in California or professionals at Hampstead, is that the characters are timeless - and Beverly, far from being a camp monster and a control freak, is a sad and vulnerable woman, desperate for children and anxious to please. In short, she is a character we recognise regardless of language or class. Read Michael Coveney's excellent The World According to Mike Leigh for a far more sympathetic analysis of Abigail's Party and a thorough demolition job on pretentious poseurs like the playwright Dennis Potter, who denounced the play as an exercise in class snobbery. This is pretty rich from a man who thought nothing of boring us to death with the monstrous sight of Colin Welland in short trousers in Blue Remembered Hills and who spent hours of television time fantasising about busty young …
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Publication information: Article title: Beverly's Nibbles Are Still the Best Around. Contributors: Janet Street-Porter, Editor-At-Large - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: July 7, 2002. Page number: 24. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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