The distinguished playwright and critic Denis Potter dismissed it as“… a prolonged jeer.” The Independent’s theatre critic David Thompson referred to its creator Mike Leigh as “… a cruel chronicler of suburbia’s nasty secrets and lies.” But Leigh himself fought back, describing his pin-sharp, excruciatingly embarrassing comedy of manners as “… a lamentation not a sneer. These are people we recognise and understand.”
In the four decades since its 1977 premiere at the Hampstead Theatre in London and its television adaptation later in the same year, audiences have sided with him, regularly naming Abigail’s Party as one of the most popular and accomplished plays of our time. Its central character Beverly has become an iconic Everywoman figure, whose crass social climbing provokes mounting sentiments of pity and outrage.
Now the play, which kick started the acting career of the wonderful Alison Steadman, is being produced by the MAC in Belfast. It will be directed by Richard Croxford, himself a fine actor and former artistic director at the Lyric, who grew up in Liverpool in the 1970s and knows the territory well. The role of Beverly will be played by the talented Belfast actress Roisin Gallagher, last seen in a very different context as the protective girlfriend of a man who is literally falling to pieces. PJ O’Reilly’s powerful, semi-autobiographical play focused on the issue of male mental health and played in prisons and community settings, as well as on stage. That assignment was a demanding one for Gallagher, who, during the past twelve months has experienced tragedy and joy in agonisingly close proximity. Exactly one year ago, she gave birth to her first child Donal and, just before Christmas, she lost her beloved father to cancer.
“I wasn’t sure that I was able for The Man Who Fell to Pieces,” she says. “But being in rehearsals and then on stage with my friend Shaun Blaney, with whom I did my first professional gig here ten years ago, was tremendously helpful. It enabled me to deal with my grief in a constructive way. It’s a tremendous piece of writing and it was an honour to be part of it. My dad would certainly have given it his blessing.”
Her father, “… a wise, quietly spoken man from County Tyrone, who was a close observer of human behaviour,” strongly supported her dream of becoming an actress. When many parents would have been encouraging their 18-year old daughters to consider a steady, conventional employment path, hers set her free to take up a coveted place at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, one of the world’s top conservatoires for the performing arts.
“I arrived there, this wee Catholic girl from west Belfast, knowing nothing about nothing,” she recalls. “Everyone else seemed so sophisticated and wordly wise, drinking wine and having wild love affairs. It was like they had the knowledge and I hadn’t a clue. Looking back now, they were probably feeling as unsure I was but were better at covering it up. But it gave me the best training possible, a fantastic grounding for the career I wanted for myself. There are times even now when I miss that training, that sense of camaraderie and being in a space where everyone is there to help and encourage each other. But when you are lucky enough to get working on pieces like Abigail’s Party and The Man Who Fell to Pieces, that feeling returns.
“Richard has created a warm, gentle atmosphere in the rehearsal room, which has really helped us to look deeply into our characters. We’ve become like a family, which is so important in an ensemble piece like this. If anything goes wrong on stage, we’re there to pick it up and cover for each other. A happy rehearsal room makes for a happy stage experience, which then makes its way out into the audience. Hopefully!
To her shame, she says that when she was invited to read for the role of Beverly, she was unaware of the significance of the role or, indeed, of the play itself.
“I don’t know how on earth I hadn’t come across it before, either as a student or on television, because it’s such a corker,” she says. “When I told my dad I was up for a part in it, he said straightaway that it was a brilliant play and even started quoting bits from it. It’s a script that demands to be performed rather than read. I know the way Mike Leigh works, the way he and the cast bring their observations and life experience into devising the characters within the loose structure of the script. It’s very exciting to be a part of the history of this play and to be playing such a plum role. In fact, I checked with my agent that it was Beverly I was being asked to read for. Even at that early stage I felt such an affinity for her.
“This is one of those plays where I’d love to be in the audience myself. There will be people of a certain age who will know the play and be familiar with the context and then there will be others who are coming to it for the first time. I can’t wait to see their different reactions.”
The play’s setting is a drinks party in the suburban sprawl on the eastern edges of London. The guests are a motley, ill-matched little collection of neighbours whom Beverly and her husband Laurence (Will Irvine) are out to impress.
Angela (Brigid Shine) and Tony (Craig Miller) are young newcomers to the area, still settling into their small starter home and casting envious glances at the flashy mock Tudor houses being built in the leafy outer reaches. Recently divorced Sue (Imogen Slaughter), the voice of reason in the play, lives in a 1930s house, tastefully renovated by her architect ex-husband but dismissed by Beverly as ‘old.’ Beverly and Laurence represent the aspirational middle-class wannabes of 1970s Britain, speaking in faux cultured accents, buying pristine leather bound books by the metre and making very sure to serve the right wines alongside the right nibbles – in this case, cubes of cheese and pineapple on sticks. They are all about doing ‘the done thing’.
As the drink takes its toll and tongues loosen, the layers of their respective relationships are gradually peeled away to reveal some quite unpleasant truths lurking beneath. With the exception of Sue, who clearly would love to be anywhere but in this ghastly gathering, the couples chat about rape and domestic violence and sexism and incipient racism with a casual insouciance that strikes modern day audiences as profoundly shocking. But such is the universality of the piece and its characters that Leigh also forces us into asking ourselves how far we have really come. It is a play which turns a mirror onto the audience itself and, in a bold move for a writer, onto the domestic situation of Leigh and his then-wife Steadman, as they were struggling to establish themselves in their professional and domestic lives.
After graduating, Gallagher’s first professional role was the lead in The BloodyChamber, Bryony Lavery’s lurid stage adaptation of Angela Carter’s erotic reimagining of the Bluebeard story, at the Northern Stage in Newcastle. “It involved full nudity and was pretty explicit. I wouldn’t do it now,” she laughs. “I was in better shape then.”
There followed a leading role in another Lavery piece The Wicked Ladyat the New Vic in London. Present at its opening night was the highly respected Guardian critic Lyn Gardner, who had been considerably less than impressed withThe Bloody Chamber. This time around, however, her review took a very different tone:
“Lavery’s Barbara – beautifully and subtly played by Roisin Gallagher – is no feminist icon. She is very much a real woman: complicated, contradictory and so damaged by experience … the worse she behaves, the more you cheer her on.” Gardner could have been writing about Beverly.
“She is a complex character and you do love to hate her,” agrees Gallagher. “But there’s a warmth, a goodness to her as well. Mike Leigh said that there is a bit of Beverly in all of us and I do think that’s true. Most of us are constantly trying to better ourselves in some way or other, looking up at the next level of people above us and striving to be like them. She’s a little girl trying to be a lady and finding it tough. She’s big into her clothes and her make-up and is terrified of getting it wrong. She’s like a magpie, reading magazines, talking to the ‘right’ people, picking up shiny bits of information here and there. She doesn’t mean to offend or insult, but when she wants to, boy, can she do it.
“The bottom line is that she is unhappy. She’s trapped in what has become, after only three years, a loveless marriage to a horrible, judgmental man, who loves to show off his knowledge and demeans her at every turn. In the rehearsal room, one of the elements we looked at was what had attracted these two people to each other in the first place and what had made their relationship turn sour in such a short space of time. Then I suddenly realised that Beverly is childless; I’m convinced that she is unable to have children. It’s never actually said, but that’s my theory. It helped me to give her a big heart and good intentions underneath all the bossiness and bullying, which she uses as a cover.
“When I think back to my early days in Glasgow, I see a lot of Beverly in myself – trying to look cool, trying not to look stupid, trying to keep up. And, yes, a bit vulnerable and scared underneath it all.”
When the run of Abigail’s Partyis ended, Gallagher is embarking on a different kind of creative adventure, working with O’Reilly and Tinderbox on a new piece of work about her father, using recorded conversations she made with him in his last months.
“He had a wonderful turn of phrase, a very distinctive way of speaking and an incredible outlook and philosophy on life. As an artist, I don’t know how else to deal with my loss, except by exploring it and leaning into it. I wanted to make sure that I don’t forget him, not just by looking at photographs and talking about him but by preserving his voice. He had a great way of making things simple, giving sound advice, untangling threads. That’s what I miss most. There’s an issue of ownership, of course, and I have had long conversations with my siblings and my mum about it. I talked to Dad about it too and everyone is very much behind the project.
“I know I have chosen a difficult job for myself, but he always encouraged me to stick with it. He was a great believer in being true to yourself. These are tough, challenging times for people who work in the arts. What a lot of people don’t realise, that being an artist is a profession – like being a doctor or a plumber or a joiner. It’s what we do.
“The funding cuts that are being imposed on what is already an impoverished sector are a sign of how little our professionalism is valued at an official level. I do find that depressing. Like many others in our business, I experience ebbs and flows, doubts and fears. I often ask myself if I should be a teacher. I do acting and drama workshops with young people and in community groups and I really love it. I sing at weddings and funerals. I use my art in many different ways and I don’t think it’s too much to be asked that my status as a trained artist is acknowledged.
“As a freelance artist who is always working on different assignments, you are forever reinventing the wheel. Often you find yourself questioning the value of who or what you are. The fact is that there’s just not enough work around but I really hope that if I do take a step back it’s not because of the funding crisis but because I’ve made a conscious decision to do something different, to tell stories in a different way, whether as a writer or an actor.”
Abigail’s Party runs at the MAC from 14 April to 5 May.
This article was first published by Culture Northern Ireland on 10 April 2018.