Issues of Class: Abigail’s Party San Francisco Playhouse June 2013

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Abigail’s Party San Franciso Playhouse (California) June 2013

 I saw this production in late June during a short tourist break in San Francisco in advance of attending a conference. In thinking about the trip I had imagined myself going to see a number of exciting and/or challenging shows or performances in this city. In the event, despite lengthy internet searches other than the weekly ‘Magic Night’ at my hotel (which unfortunately did not correspond with my stay) and similar hotel based cabarets, the only thing that seemed to be on offer at this time was this production of Abigail’s Party directed by Amy Glazer.

 Initially, I balked at the idea of travelling all the way to San Francisco to end up seeing not only such a ‘British’ play but one which, like many of Leigh’s productions, has always seemed to me highly questionable in its representation of class. Written in 1978 and like all Leigh’s work developed through lengthy character-based improvisation with the performers, it take place over course of a party in which essentially its five characters (two married couples Beverly and Laurence, Tony and Angela plus the solo Susan) chat, squabble, get drunk and are eventually rudely sobered up by a sudden dramatic turn of events.

 The San Francisco Playhouse programme describes it as ‘a ferocious satire’ that attacks ‘the burgeoning middle class suburbs of London’. This doesn’t really acknowledge that as Dennis Potter noted at the time of its premiere, its target is not the manners and attitudes of the established middle class but of those from other ‘lower’ classifications who in the late 1960s early 1970s were taking advantage of the ‘social mobility’ afforded by the impact of relative post war prosperity and social and educational reform. As confirmed by comments made in an article for The Guardian in 2007 by Alison Steadman  (who created the character of Beverly)   the model for the play’s vision of (outer) London suburbs  was more Essex or Dagenham than Harrow and Richmond.

 These latter places would have been a far more comfortable social environment for the character of Susan, who has recently divorced her architect husband and is presented as something of a ‘fish out of water’ in the home of the brash decidabley lower middle class beauty therapist Beverly and her estate agent husband Laurence and in the company of their younger ‘less sophisticated’ friends (ex-footballer now staring to work in IT) Tony and (nurse) Angela.

 Of course the play is named not for the party shown on stage but for the off stage event being thrown by Susan’s teenage daughter and which has led to her accepting to the invitation to Beverly’s. This decision perhaps connects to the way this drama seems to favour Susan’s polite but slightly bewildered perspective as a class ‘outsider’ at this party in a fashion that throws into relief the ‘ferocity’ of the satirical treatment of the pretentions to ‘good taste’ and proper discrimination on the part of Beverley and Laurence. Presented as ‘social climbers’, these two are also savagely divided amongst themselves as to whether cheese and pineapple chunks on sticks, rotisseries, lava lamps and the music of Jose Feliciano are more or less ‘classy’ than olives, genuinely fake leather bound set of complete works of Shakespeare and classical music.

 As this indicates, the signifiers of ‘cultural capital’ embracing accent, style, taste and indeed education and employment underwriting some of the finer class distinctions in Britain at the time are observed in forensic and unsympathetic detail, most especially in regard to Beverly.  As delivered by Steadman, this character is unquestionably one of the great theatrical comic grotesques and Abigail’s Party is at times a very funny play of social embarrassment. Nevertheless, I tend to agree with Dennis’s Potter’s evaluation of this play as a ‘prolonged jeer’ articulated from a position of condescension of the sort evidence in recent British reality TV shows such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding or The Only Way is Essex which unlimitedly reaffirm ‘class barriers’ through the mechanism of distinctions of taste and ‘cultural capital’.

 I also have to admit that my response to this play is strongly coloured by my own background growing up in a part of Kent not so distant from Essex geographically and equally not so distant from the aspirant upper working/lower middle class milieu represented in Abigail’s Party.  As such I recognise the verisimilitude of its representation of the surface detail of the character’s lifestyles but as someone who has themselves (for good or ill) ‘climbed socially’ I am angered by the way the characters (especially Beverly) are rendered, judged and dismissed primarily on the basis of this surface detail and wholly outside of an acknowledgment of a broader socio-political context.

 Having remembered all this about this play I concluded that actually it would be fascinating to see how a North American theatre company would approach it. According to pervasive national myths, whereas ‘social climbing’ has always been (and  remains) the object of savage satire in the UK, in the US it is framed as a ‘national virtue’.  Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary attempts are also often made to deny the fact that this country has a ‘class system’ at all.   I wondered then, how this piece rooted in the minutia of the British class system of the 1970s would ‘translate’ and I was hoping it would actually be transposed to the US and completely re-interpreted through this context, even perhaps updated.

 None of this turned out to be the case but the context did affect my own reading of the show in ways that might connect to the different ways ‘class’ is signified and performed in these two countries. This very much includes the venue itself, which is arrived at through taking a lift to on an upper floor of a smart hotel (apparently owned by the ‘Elks lodge’ ) to a foyer and auditorium converted from a beautiful wood panelled (ball?) room. While the company does appear have some local Government Arts funding and some corporate sponsorship, it is clearly largely supported financially and artistically by gifts and endowments from a loyal group of ‘seat owners’, ‘donors’ and ‘friends’. This is indicated in the programme but it was also evident in the sense of ownership and familiarity between  audience members in the foyer and between audience members and staff, including ‘artistic’ staff.  While the space itself is quite grand it (and the way it is approached) was for me unconventional and although a fair number of spectators had ‘dressed up’ for the occasion, probably because I was an ‘outsider’ and could not read the codes, it immediately felt like a more relaxed and welcoming space than is the case with (still) so many British theatres .

 In terms of the actual production I suspect the cast had watched the 1970s TV version with the original performers, since there was a sense of remaining ‘faithful’ to this production, including the cast making a good stab at reproducing the distinctive ‘estuary’ accents. If these occasionally sounded a touch Australian to me the  locals sitting next to me tole me they could not detect this, and I’m sure if they watched works by Miller, Shepherd or Mamet in some British productions they might perceive a comparative continental drift. Interestingly Julia Brothers’ neatly observed portrayal of Susan with its more RP accent suffered less from this.

 There were however, numerous small ‘differences’ between this and British productions of this play I have seen but it is sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly how far any of these might have been national/cultural or were due to the distance of time since it was first performed. The detailed living room set seemed just slightly ‘wrong’ but I could not definitely say why, except it looked a little too ‘well designed’ for the world of the play and this might also have been to do with the subtlety of the lighting. Similarly, Susi Damilano who played Beverly has a bodily style that is distinctly contemporary and perhaps fitting a theatrical/TV/filmic image of US femininity, was far more toned and polished and genuinely ‘glamorous’ than is usual in the casting and portrayal of this character. On this level of observation, again rather stereotypically as a ‘Brit’ I could not help but notice that all the cast had dazzlingly teeth unlikely to be found in the London suburbs of the 1970s and possibly not even on currently on most UK stages.  

 In terms of performance style, Patrick Kelly Jones’s interpretation of Tony was far more exaggerated and physically expressive that I have seen before, to the extent that he threatened to become a rival in comic monstrosity to Beverly, and indeed, perhaps because of her ‘glamour’ Damilano seemed a little more subdued and therefore a little less grotesque than this figure often appears. In a production directed by a woman and in a company in which as ‘producing director’ as well as ‘star’ Damilano appears to be an influential figure, this might reflect a concern to achieve some ‘balance’ in the representation of gender in the piece.

I am of course wholly sympathetic to this move but these performances reminded me of years ago when I used to do practical exercises with students exploring what happened if you attempted to create ‘feminist re-interpretations’ of plays such as Look Back in Anger without in any way editing or changing either the script or framing or otherwise overtly ‘re-contextualsing’ the action.  Due to the structure of the works ‘realism’ (in contrast for instance to more poetic texts which are far more open to (re)interpretation) the result was often a weakening of the character of Jimmy and a strengthening of Alison in a way that rendered it not worth watching as a play. This is because it is actually Jimmy’s misogyny towards Alison (and her corresponding passivity) that give him and by extension the play, its dynamism. Our conclusion was that (as feminists) either we had to ‘deconstruct’ the play entirely or play it framed up critically as a ‘period piece’ or just not perform it at all.

In this instance, at the risk of seeming contrary it seems to me that a certain ‘ferocity’ towards Beverley is crucial to Abigail’s Party’s energy and actually it seemed to me that overall the Playhouse production was ‘playing it safe’, concerned not to disturb or offend its friendly audience.

On the other hand maybe my anger at the play’s class politics, distanced by this encounter, at a distance from ‘home’ has always been crucial to my engagement with it.

Either way I am left intrigued as to why the company chose to do this particular text.

Gerry

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