Abigail's Party: Nancy Banks-Smith reviews the TV version of the play - archive 1977

Abigail’s Party - (from left) Janine Duvitski, Alison Steadman, Tim Stern, Harriet Reynolds, John Salthouse.
Abigail’s Party - (from left) Janine Duvitski, Alison Steadman, Tim Stern, Harriet Reynolds, John Salthouse. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Pearls are caused by irritating oysters in the privacy of their own homes and Abigail’s Party (BBC1) was a fine pearl, the result of one of those TV parties where everyone has a simply terrible time.

Any party on TV is the signal for insult, indigestion and vomiting off. Charles Wood’s Love-Lies-Bleeding was this year’s clear favourite in that most of the party was spent cowering under the kitchen table, the soup was off and the host was shot.

A cheeky little contender, an each way bet, I thought was Like Poetry a couple of Sundays ago when Dannie Abse invited four poets to dinner. They droned on about the nature of poetry “I agree with Cocteau,” while swallowing food like Hoovers. When they wanted more they held out their plates, still holding forth. The hostess did not get a word of thanks nor one in edgeways. Surely, I thought, she must strike them with her ladle like so many boiled egg-heads crying: “What, you lost your mittens, you naughty kittens? Then you shall have no pie.” (It should have been manners not mittens but, as poets would be the first to appreciate, it doesn’t rhyme.)

Abigail’s Party scored in that the host actually expired on the rug, hounded into a heart attack by his wife, a magnificent monster somewhere between Mae West and Belle Elmore. Alison Steadman, who played her, concocted the character like a cheap and lethal cocktail for all Mike Leigh’s plays are improvised by his actors, dramatic jam sessions. The method is exhilarating but it does produce loose ends, blind alleys and unanswered questions. Why, for instance, were the husbands separated when they went to the party next door? The camera would sometimes cut for a reaction that was hardly worth the journey and Abigail’s mother seemed to be in a different play altogether.

With the host, albeit only five feet of him, dead in the living room, you might think the truly terrible TV party has gone, like Kansas City, about as fur as it kin go. But I felt a real opportunity was missed here. Alison Steadman, who is married to Mike Leigh, was evidently heavily pregnant and the party should have ended with the hostess in labour. That would have been a real test of improvisation.