You are what you own

Abigail’s Party was more than a celebration of naffness, says Simon Fanshawe. It was a warning about Thatcherism

Three years ago I interviewed the original cast of Abigail’s Party on the stage of the National Theatre for one of their Platform performances. It was like a revivalist meeting. It had the expectant hysteria of a pop concert.

The entire audience – apart from an American couple in the front row who looked as bemused as two nuns at a thrash rock gig – behaved like a religious congregation as they lip-synced the words of their creed, the improvised script that was developed by Mike Leigh and the five actors in 1977 for the Hampstead Theatre. They clapped every remembered phrase and gesture, and cheered at the hideous nouveau riche-ness of Beverly and Lawrence, who invite their neighbours, Tone and Angela and Sue, over for a night of Bacardi, g&t, “little cheesy-pineapple ones” and Jose Feliciano singing Light My Fire, which for some reason in later productions became Demis Roussos singing Forever.

But as the evening progressed, I realised that despite the gaggles of gay men howling at the high camp of Alison Steadman’s Beverly and the knowing hoots of derision of a middle-class crowd at red wine being put in the fridge, or Janine Duvitski as Angela describing what an “economical dish” pilchard curry was – despite all this, Abigail’s Party was more than a fiesta of naff and a hilarious opportunity to worship at the temple of tack. It was the most prescient dramatic warning of the Thatcherism to come, of the greed that would be good for two decades, of the elevation of objects and ownership beyond the value of community.

Forget the earnestness of David Hare and Howard Brenton and the angry anti-Tory denunciations of the red fringe theatre companies in the late 1970s; Leigh and his cast had vividly brought to life the gargoyles that decorated the edifice of the declining traditional working class. These were the people who turned their backs on Labour and thought that by buying their own houses in a new neighbourhood, hanging net curtains to shut themselves off from a world they didn’t have to look at and thus care about, they could take over the country for themselves. I’m Alright Jack and… Bev, Tone, Angela and Lawrence. Not that they knew that was what they were doing, or understood the effect it might have on the rest of us. They were far too self-centred for that.

Of course, no one actually talks about politics at all in Abigail’s Party. Which is the point really. Keith Joseph, Alfred Sherman and the other Tory ideologues embittered by the postwar consensus who hung their wretchedly reactionary ideas on Thatcher – they talked politics. But Thatcher didn’t. Her doctrine was entirely personal to her. She behaved as if the country was her father’s shop. She spoke to us like children, in the way of a provincial Sunday-school teacher. Thatcherism was, in the words of Nigel Lawson when he was Chancellor, “whatever Margaret Thatcher herself at any time did or said”.

It would be stretching a point even beyond the credibility of an Open University politics seminar to suggest that Beverly in Abigail’s Party is somehow Thatcher, or even a metaphor for her. But the play, as Leigh put it last week, “intuitively and instinctively took the temperature of what I believe is called the zeitgeist”. It is shot through with “received notions of how we should behave and what we should have”, he continued. “Beverly is a complete victim of suburban values.” As was Margaret Thatcher.

Richmond Road, where Bev and Lawrence live, has changed. Sue, the mother of the never-seen Abigail from whose teenage party next door she is a refugee, is middle-class. She is divorced and is part of a one-parent family. It is never articulated, but this last fact is the subject of some pity. Sue is a mild woman but clearly a free-thinking parent, and in some ways she is symbolic of the kind of bohemianism that was so rejected by Thatcher. Thatcherism was built by substituting apparent individual economic freedom for personal freedom embodied by sexual liberation. It sought to isolate the middle classes and their feckless sexual liberalism and attempted to justify the ambition of the new working class by cloaking it in the sanctity of methodist piety and calling it hard work.

Ironically, it was precisely the Tory battle cry of “Get on your bike” that broke so many traditional family ties and led to such disastrous levels of social breakdown. But aspiration was king, and communities were transformed. Sue – when pressed by Lawrence to say that their area has changed, “the class of people… the tone of the area… you don’t think it’s gone down?” – can only come up with a frighteningly polite: “It’s more mixed.” “More cosmopolitan”, counters Lawrence. Presumably he means ethnically. She thinks that’s a good thing; he does not.

They are not talking “swamping”. Leigh is too clever to do more than suggest the undertone. But it is unmistakably there. Lawrence is a Little Englander in the making, the estate agent with his bound and “gold-embossed” Shakespeare and Dickens, which he describes, with typical middle England anti-intellectualism, as “part of our heritage. Of course it’s not something you can actually read.” Naturally. It’s not there to be read. It’s there, along with the mock-Tudor houses nearby, to be a symbol of Britishness, which you certainly can’t lay claim to if you’re “cosmopolitan”.

The world of Abigail’s Party is one where you are entirely defined by what you have got, rather than who you are. Kitchens, sofas, tiling, tables: “It’s unusual isn’t it – with the wooden top and the modern legs?” “Yeah, it was expensive that one,” says Bev. And they’ve got candelabra. These people are not what they eat, they are what they own.

I remember vividly being in a pub in the very early 1980s in Brighton with a bunch of other community work types when we were turned upon by a lieutenant-colonel character, of the kind you only really seem to find in the plays of Terence Rattigan. After listening to our conversation about the local community for a while, he rounded on us in fury. “What do you lot ever do? You’re nothing. I mean do you own anything? I own a yacht and a house and a car. What do you own?” We didn’t. It defined us. The rest of the pub just sneered at us and our good intentions for the local area.

Along with her possessions, Beverly, for all her pretend permissiveness and flirting with Angela’s husband, is the very model of social conformity. She is, in Leigh’s words, “completely subdued by received notions of how we should behave and what we should have”. While the middle classes voted Tory, the aspirations that lifted Thatcher to power were really those of working people who had broken their allegiance to their own class. But having broken free of their roots and their communities, they were at sea, unanchored by any values. Thrust into milieux where they either didn’t understand the rules or just didn’t notice them, and with no collective history to guide them, they had no option but to turn entirely to the satisfaction of their own desires.

All the characters in Abigail’s party act deeply selfishly. They talk at rather than with each other. Beverly constantly pushes cigarettes, drinks, her taste in music and her advice on her guests without noticing she is doing so. The grown-ups in number 13 Richmond Road, despite having metaphorical poles up their arses which make them ill at ease with each other, try to enjoy themselves. But the teenagers next door with Abigail are the proto-punks who in a few years will be rioting against the poll tax.

Abigail’s Party described in savage detail the ingredients for the banquet of selfishness that was to dominate the Tories’ party over the next 25 years. The big recipe in the play is not for pilchard curry, it is for the triumph of material aspiration and lack of any identity for people outside the realisation of their own desires. Fortunately, before we all drown under the weight of arguments about its potential significance, Abigail’s Party is also incredibly funny.

ยท Abigail’s Party is at the Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020-7722 9301) from July 10.

The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and Clarifications column, Monday June 24 2002

In an article about Abigail’s Party we quoted Mike Leigh, the director, saying Alison Steadman’s character, Beverly, was “completely subdued by received notions of how we should behave and what we should have”. Mike Leigh points out that her character in fact is anything but subdued. What he actually said (in a telephone interview) was that Beverly was “imbued with received notions…” etc.

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