In my opinion, stage directions and technical effects are an essential part of creating dramatic tension, and a sense of atmosphere. The stage directions can be aimed at the actors, the director, the sound crew, or the lighting technicians, but ultimately all cohere, to help the atmosphere and tension. All through the play, the satirical styles of the characters are amusing, but sometimes down right annoying – which I think was done deliberately to represent her character. I think Elizabeth Berrington’s character, Beverly, is one of the best examples of this.
Her bossy and aggravating manner towards her husband and others dominated the first half of the play. It was, however, overpowered in numbers when the main creator of the tension became the receiver. Towards the end of the play, she was, for example, shouted down, pushed around, and told to shut up. The main surprise of all was when Wendy Nottingham delivered Susan’s line: ‘Will you just shut up for one minute? ‘ Susan, being the ‘weakest’ one of, all seemed to ‘break’ last.
Tony, who appeared to come across as quiet and unsociable, became violent in the play version, and grabbed Angela’s arm, while delivering the line ‘you just can’t keep your big mouth shut, can you? Get up! ‘ I remember vividly hearing an audible ‘gasp’ in the audience. That was highly surprising. Tony was described as being domineering towards Angela previously, but I don’t think the audience really expected it to be present at the party. Angela, played by Rosie Cavaliero, is stereotyped as a dippy and dim nurse, and it was also suggested that Tony didn’t marry her for her looks or personality.
In act two of ‘Abigail’s Party’, I found that most of the stage directions were aimed at the actors, which I think helps them to get a feel of the character they are playing. The more detail there is in a stage direction about a character, the better the actors can play them, because they understand more of their personality, point of view, and so on. For example, on page forty-four, ‘Laurence places his glass on the coffee-table, and joins Angela; just as he reaches her, she starts “bopping”, which is inappropriate, as the music is “smoochy”, and Beverly and Tony are “smooching”.
Laurence musters a vague gesture of a “bop”. ‘ To me, “smooching” connotes teenage love, and a “bop” connotes immaturity, or perhaps being fun or drunk. I think that the stage direction given in the play is far better than if it were simply ‘Laurence goes to dance with Angela, who starts bopping. Beverly and Tony are smooching,’ which just isn’t enough detail. I think that the way Angela is “bopping” ‘inappropriately’ suggests how Angela is so unlike anyone else on stage – suggesting also that maybe she doesn’t really belong there.
I feel sorry for Laurence when Beverly and Tony “smooch” in front of him, because it shows the complete disregard Bev has of her husband. On page forty-nine, there is a long stage direction, which is aimed at the actors and the sound crew. It is an essential part in the story because it is when Laurence has his heart attack. The way it is written, it is meant to build tension. When I read it – I needed to breathe more. ‘Laurence sits. Angela sits. Susan sits. Tony does not sit. ‘ I think it was written this way and not ‘everybody sits apart from Tony,’ because I think Mike Leigh wanted the reader to feel the pace of the sequence.
It continues ‘Laurence jumps up, goes to look at the record, walks towards the door, stops, looks at Tony, sits, waits. ‘ Again, this adds pace and tension to the piece. It shows how Laurence is unsure what to do, now that he has embarrassed himself. The way he sits down, then gets up, walks about, then sits back down, I think is symbolic of the stress and angst of further embarrassment he is going through. When it finally gets too much, the music that is played (‘Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the first movement’) has connotations in my mind of the imminence of something dramatic.
This is the moment Laurence has his heart attack. In the stage directions, there is a moment where ‘the others look on, confused’. I think this adds to the surprise because nobody was expecting it. There is also an evidently larger amount of profanities and coarse language in the second act. I think this emphasises the stress and strain people are under. For example, the words ‘shit’ and ‘fucking’ are much more effective than ‘oh no’ or ‘stupid’. Used in the context ‘would somebody turn that fucking record off’ is definitely is more effective than ‘would someone turn that record off. ‘
All the way through the play, I feel that the relationships between the married characters deteriorate. For example, from the time Laurence arrived home from work, Beverly and he were already getting on each others nerves, and throughout the play, they are the cause of multiple points of dramatic tension. An example of this would be when Laurence arrives back from checking Abigail’s party, and asks Sue if she wants a sandwich, Beverly and he have a sort of ‘battle’ to see who is right. The tension peaks when Laurence runs up to Beverly with a knife, and this shock is represented by a complete freeze on stage.
The silence lurks until Beverly, in a ‘kind’ voice says ‘Laurence, will you please go back into the kitchen and finish making your little sandwich, all right? ‘ I feel very annoyed at Beverly for this line, because I thought she was the cause of it, and the way she very quickly added on the ‘all right’ is very symbolic of her complete disregard of the intensity and seriousness of the situation. Another example of the dramatic tension between Beverly and Laurence is when Beverly puts on the Elvis Presley record loud, and Laurence tries to turn it down so that he can hold a conversation.
Then, when Beverly rushes to the record to turn it up, Laurence grabs her arm. The stage direction is important here. ‘Beverly turns the volume up. Laurence turns it off. Beverly goes to turn it on; Laurence grabs her arm. Pause. They are locked together. ‘ The pauses in the stage direction show the tension. The long pause when Laurence lets go is the release of the tension, and I honestly felt relived it was over. I have to say though, the West-End version worked far better for me, because I could feel the tension grab me more. I’m not sure why.
Maybe this is because the West-End version can adapt more to the modern audience, whereas the BBC video version is ‘set’. The relationship between Angela and Tony seems not to visibly suffer, but we hear of mild domestic violence, and at one point, I was shocked to see Tony grab Angela’s arm and pull her out of her seat. Angela was oblivious to the fact that Beverly was being very erotic with her husband, and I laughed when Beverly says ‘you don’t mid me mauling your husband, do you, Ang? ‘ to which Angela replies ‘No, you go ahead’. The verb ‘maul’ has connotations in my mind of being treated roughly, beaten and battered.
Later on, Beverly says ‘Ang – d’you wanna dance with Tone? ‘ where Angela replies ‘no: you’re alright. ‘ We then see, as the stage direction tells the actors, Beverly and Tony in a ‘more intimate embrace than previously. ‘ Susan remained a queer character throughout the play. Although she seemed quiet and shy – her gentle and calm nature seemed to rip into two at the end of the play when she shouted down the main character Beverly – who up until Laurence’s heart attack, seemed to be in control of everything that was going on. The audience really had to learn about Susan through the other character’s conversations.
For example, she seemed to be ‘a closed book’ when it came to her marriage, and I think she felt she was forced to talk about it, in order to ‘fit in’ at the party. I think this is terribly symbolic of the satirical style of Leigh’s play. Susan’s character connotes to me a single mother who is ashamed of her past, and just wants to forget about it. I think this is in contrast to Beverly’s character, where she seems to be open about her unhappiness in marriage with Laurence. I think the relationships represented in Abigail’s Party were also typical of Britain in the 70s.
Divorce rates were on the rise, and according to the Abigail’s Party programme Britain was ‘a nation who chose to fiddle while home burned. ‘ Delivery of lines is very important to the overall effect and coherence of the play – especially in act two. In my opinion – this idea is especially important in the relationship between Beverly and Tony. Elizabeth Berrington in the West-End version, made her character out to be mildly, yet evidently ‘slutty’ and ‘sexually suggestive’ towards Tony. I felt this helped to dissolve the relationship between her and Laurence.