It's 36 years since he invited us for dinner . . . so can Leigh still throw a great Party?
Abigail's Party is perhaps Mike Leigh's most famous play and film. But it was also his worst reviewed. "Simply appalling," it was called; "sloppily shot . . . bland and slick in the worst sense." The thing is, the critic was Mike Leigh.
Abigail's Party plays at the Gaiety from Monday to Saturday (see www.gaietytheatre.ie); the film is available on YouTube. Leigh remains fond of the play, which he "devised" in 1977, aged 34, but he loathes the film. Both were hugely successful. In a way that seems fitting to Leigh's idiosyncratic way of working, that success was largely a matter of accident.
By 34, Leigh had already developed the way of working for which he is famous: developing his plays and films over months of work with the actors, during which they improvise and tease out elaborate back stories for their characters.
After training as an actor at RADA in London, he had had some success as a director of theatre and television plays for the BBC, when he was offered a 10-week rehearsal slot at the Hampstead Theatre, a well-regarded new writing venue. He took it as "a stopgap, something I'd just get out of the way that would sink without trace". (The quotes here are from the illuminating book of interviews, Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh.)
But that stopgap hit a chord with the public, just at the point when Margaret Thatcher was doing so too. The play consists of a dinner party of five new neighbours in their late 20s and 30s; their talk of cars, furniture, jobs and more both documents and satirises the concerns of a new generation and strata of British society, the suburban class.
The play was a hit at Hampstead and was due for a transfer to the West End, but the lead actress, Alison Steadman, then married to Leigh, was pregnant and doctors advised against playing on.
The BBC then had a regular TV play slot; one of the plays lined up was cancelled, and they offered the slot to Leigh. (That cancellation is another story – it was a play by Caryl Churchill, Legion Hall Bombing, about the non-jury Diplock courts in Belfast. When it was later filmed, the following year, Churchill and the director had their names removed in protest at cuts imposed by the BBC.)
To Leigh's horror, his play was simply "wheeled into a television studio" – there was no sophistication in the shooting or editing. But the Beeb liked it, and broadcast it a few times. On the third occasion, the broadcast coincided with a strike at ITV and massive storms, and 16 million people watched it. It became an instant classic.
But what was it people liked? The dinner party is excruciating, and some critics denounced it for "sneering and braying" at its characters; Leigh responded that it wasn't "a play about 'them', it's a play about us".
The actor Timothy Spall, who starred in Leigh's 1996 hit Secrets and Lies, said Leigh's characters were often "the sort of people who most other people are thankful not to be" but that what Leigh does is give them "nobility".
That nobility comes through the extraordinary process of character development: during the months of preparation, they sometimes improvise for up to 10 hours at a time.
It's as if Leigh was anticipating Big Brother, creating a world in rehearsals in which his actors would live as their characters, while he watched, waiting to seize on key moments that he would later shape into the final play or film.
The result, in Abigail's Party, was a glimpse of "the pure, raw theatre of life", he said. "You're not looking at anything that has any pretensions of intellectual meaning; it just is what it is."
This production is by a leading British director Lindsay Posner, and has been well reviewed. Thirty-six years on, it will be intriguing to see whether it retains Leigh's politics of empathy, or has become simply a comedy of manners in which the time passed since makes it even easier for us to laugh at those on stage.