Q&A with ‘Abigail’s Party’ director Liz George

The classic Mike Leigh comedy Abigail’s Party opens later this month, and in advance of the drinks party from hell, we caught up with director Liz George to get her take on the play, her approach, and the songs she’d add to the perfect 70s party playlist!

Abigail’s Party is such a classic – when did you first see it, and what made you so interested in directing it?

I first discovered Mike Leigh when my sister took me to see his film Life is Sweet at the Hexagon in Reading, over thirty years ago. I remember feeling at the time this was completely different to anything I had seen before, and I have been a fan ever since.

I then came across the screenplay for Abigail’s Party when it was featured in the all-time top 100 British TV programmes a few years later. I noted that it was based on the original production that was staged at the Hampstead Theatre. I first saw the show on stage at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury in 2006 and since then, I’ve wanted to direct the show at WT as it is my favourite play, and I believe this may be the first time it’s been performed at WT!

Do you approach the direction any different than you would a contemporary play, knowing the play was written, and is set, 45 years ago?

Mike Leigh wrote, reflecting back on the show at 40, that he never intended to write a ‘state of the nation’ play, but it had somehow captured the spirit of the time all the same. Social attitudes have changed so much, and when it came to the dynamics between the cast, especially those characters who are married, it was important to highlight that the roles of husband and wife were far more traditional in the 70s.

Economically, times were also hard (inflation was at 15% in 1977), and whilst it may not be that bad now, the class system still is a major factor in our politics and society. On a lighter note, it became apparent that a number of the cast had not used a vinyl record player before, so we had to factor some rehearsal time in for that, too!

There are some quite dark comic elements in Abigail’s Party – how do you and the cast approach them?

At the start of the rehearsal process, I held a number of characterisation sessions with the cast (one with the three female characters and one with each couple), where we explored each character’s upbringing, relationships, and life experience that led up to the events portrayed during the show.

Especially with a small cast, it’s important to really get under the skin of the characters to make their reactions, even in the most absurd situations, tangible, and above all, believable! I think that those sorts of preliminary character sessions helped the cast understand the dark, subtle comedy within the script.

Mike Leigh talks about Abigail’s Party as a ‘state of the nation’ play, do you think that it still holds true?

Yes, even if the character traits manifest themselves slightly differently.

Take the character of Beverly, for example. She’s a dreadful, self-centered, materialistic character who is obsessed by her (inflated) status and is only interested in showing off her possessions and making her peers feel inferior.

The 2021 equivalent might be that Beverly would be a social media addict, obsessed by image and celebrity, and the external validation from strangers online!

How did you get involved with WT? What have been some of your favourite projects?

Artistic Director David Stacey asked me to be the production manager for Glorious, which was staged at WT in January 2017. I jumped at the chance, as coming from a production background, there is no audition process with regards to getting involved backstage, and so it was a great way of joining a new company.

At WT, my favourite show to have been involved with was ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’, which I stage managed – it was a real rollercoaster backstage!

Your cast contains a few new members, what would you say to anyone thinking of joining and getting involved?

Everyone at WT has been extremely welcoming. Because every aspect of the theatre is run by volunteers, each person is very passionate about their role. It was really important to me that new members were involved in this production as that is how WT will continue to thrive.

I’m really pleased that there two new members to the theatre on stage, and one backstage for this show! If you are interested in any aspect of the theatre, I recommend you contact the theatre via the website. I guarantee that you will receive a warm welcome!

We’ve been asking our audiences to put together the perfect 1970s party playlist, which songs would you want to include?

That’s a great question! I have a put a number of them in my pre-show/interval playlist! These would be my recommendations:

Abigail’s Party runs from 8 – 18 September 2021 at Wokingham Theatre and tickets are on sale now.