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BWW Feature: The Best of Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh
For almost 50 years, revered writer and director Mike Leigh has perfected his signature style. Starting projects without a script and instead using improvisation techniques has led to a diverse catalogue of character-driven dramas. His works are in many ways inherently British, yet resonate across the globe, with the human condition always taking centre stage.

The theatre landscape has changed dramatically since the 1977 premiere of Abigail's Party, but Leigh remains as real, raw and relevant as ever before - and at 77, the writer/director shows no signs of slowing down. After venturing into period pieces with Topsy-Turvy and Mr Turner, Leigh's most recent picture Peterloo is his most ambitious yet. We've put together a list of Leigh's top ten works - see if you agree!

Nuts in May

Starring Leigh's former wife Alison Steadman, this 1976 BBC Play for Today signalled somewhat of a departure for Leigh following such early works as Hard Labour and Kiss of Death. With the action transplanted from the kitchen sink to the Dorset coast, this is by far Leigh's funniest film.

Keith and Candice Marie are somewhat eccentric nature lovers looking to enjoy a camping holiday. With other holidaymakers holding conflicting views in terms of campsite conduct, awkward arguments, jealous rivalries and tense clashes transpire.

Steadman is enthralling as the almost childlike and naive girlfriend of controlling Keith, played superbly by Roger Sloman. This is a masterful study of the awkward, peculiar and often hilarious everyday intricacies of people. In many ways it was a precursor for shows such as The Office and remains a cult comedy classic.

Abigail's Party

"Ice and lemon?" Think Mike Leigh and you automatically recall the groundbreaking Abigail's Party. Beverley and her long-suffering husband Laurence host the drinks party from hell for their neighbours. It's a simple premise perfectly executed and gave theatregoers something they'd never seen before.

The play made its debut at Hampstead Theatre in 1977 and was the hottest ticket in town - though not everyone 'got it', with an appalled Kenneth Williams even walking out during the interval. Being a roaring success, a West End transfer was on the cards. Alison Steadman's pregnancy with Leigh's first child put an end to proceedings, however.

Instead, the BBC swiftly wheeled the production into a television studio. Although 16 million viewers tuned in to its repeat, Leigh has openly admitted to loathing the adaptation for its poor lighting and the fact that at one point a boom is in shot. Regardless, the TV version has achieved classic status in its own right, and the play is still frequently performed around the globe.

With a career-defining performance by Alison Steadman, this period piece is a must-see for its acting alone.

Ecstasy

Ecstasy premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 1979. Suicidal Jean appears to finds respite and release in sleeping around. Abortions are a regular occurrence. Her friend Dawn brings her husband Mick and his mate Len back to Jean's Kilburn bedsit. So begins a raucous evening involving copious amounts of alcohol.

The original cast included Julie Walters, Stephen Rea and Jim Broadbent. Leigh decided to direct the play in 2011 ahead of his first new work for the stage in six years. It's the only time the director has gone back to a previous work, and he admits it's his favourite of his plays. Returning to Hampstead, the well-received revival starred Sinead Matthews and Allen Leech and quickly transferred to the West End.

A poignant piece about solitude and our human craving for companionship and attention, this entertaining character study has stood the test of time. This is classic Mike Leigh.

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Meantime

Leigh's 1983 film aired on Channel 4, and much like the recent and highly praised Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake, the focus is life on the dole. It's Thatcher's Britain and unemployment is rife across the country. In London's East End, we meet a disaffected family at the mercy of unrelenting boredom and an absence of prospects.

As always, the film successfully entwines Leigh's trademark humour with bleak themes. There is a jolting social commentary here though and it's arguably Leigh at his most political. Ahead of its time in television terms, Meantime offers us a pounding depiction of early 80s Britain.

Regular collaborators Phil Daniels and Leigh's current partner Marion Bailey are joined by Pam Ferris and Tim Roth. Making his film debut in a scene stealing role, though, is a young Gary Oldman. As with all of Leigh's work, his films are always worth watching for their performances alone, and this is certainly no exception.

Naked

Leigh was at his darkest ten years later with the bleak, black comedy Naked. Its gloomy cinematography lends a film noir style, which was noticeably different from the director's previous offerings. With hauntingly desolate London streets, a sense of sheer isolation permeates throughout.

This is echoed by an outstanding central performance from David Thewlis. The actor had worked with Leigh on 1990's Life is Sweet and was vocal about his disappointing lack of screen time. Naked more than made up for this and bagged Thewlis the Best Actor award at Cannes, placing him firmly on the map. Leigh also took home the award for Best Director.

Secrets and Lies

The film that garnered Leigh attention on an international scale, Secrets and Lies received five Oscar nominations and won the Palme d'Or. It also won Best British Film and Best Screenplay at the BAFTAs.

Leigh stuck to his winning formula of diving deep into his characters. Marianne Jean-Baptiste portrayed a well-educated, black, middle-class optometrist. Adopted as a baby, she traces her birth mother, Cynthia - played by Brenda Blethyn. The two lead polar-opposite lives with little common ground. Timothy Spall is Cynthia's brother, stuck in the middle of a long-running feud between his sister and his wife, portrayed by Phyllis Logan. The ensemble is electric, and Blethyn's emotionally charged portrayal complements Spall's understated performance perfectly.

Tackling the subject of adoption, Secrets and Lies started a conversation. With its brutally honest and ultimately relatable depiction of families, it also proved to be one of his most accessible works. The film also includes an array of brief cameos by Leigh's long-time collaborators, including Alison Steadman, Ruth Sheen, Liz Smith, Anthony O'Donnell and Sheila Kelley.

Topsy-Turvy

The close of the millennium marked a completely new direction for Leigh. Topsy-Turvy centres on the creative conflicts between Gilbert and Sullivan in their making of The Mikado. Placing real people at the heart of the story was not something Leigh had done up to this point, but the end result is more of a celebration of these two greats - as well as theatre itself - than it is a straightforward biopic.

With lavish sets and a large cast, Leigh still ensured we were presented with detailed and well-developed characters. The amount of love that was invested in the project is clearly evident. The film picked up Academy Awards for Best Costume and Make-up and signalled a new creative avenue for Leigh that would eventually lead to Mr Turner and Peterloo. It's refreshing to see a film about the creative process of making theatre. Not your run-of-the-mill period piece, this is perhaps Leigh's most unexpected effort.

Vera Drake

Another period piece, this time set in 1950s London. Vera is a much-loved, devoted wife and mother, but her family are unaware of her secret. Helping women in need by performing abortions, her intentions are good but her actions illegal. When the truth is inevitably exposed, her world implodes and her family falls apart.

As with many of Leigh's films, what works so well here is the fact that he doesn't bombard you with any judgement or personal views with regard to abortion. Instead, he allows the audience to make up their own minds. With such a huge social issue at its heart, Leigh once again masterfully mulls over the human condition and presents us with a detailed illustration.

Imelda Staunton offers an incredible, career-defining performance as the title character. She is complemented beautifully by an understated Phil Davis and the brilliant Daniel Mays. They are so believable and utterly enthralling as a family, and the scene whereby Vera is arrested at the dinner table is one of the most intense in Leigh's entire canon. Many Leigh regulars provide solid support, with Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Lesley Sharp and Peter Wight all making memorable appearances.

The film further exposed Leigh on an international scale and proved his progress as a filmmaker. It also highlighted the fact that the director never shies away from challenging himself or tackling challenging ideas.

Another Year

Following the lighthearted Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh returned to familiar ground with Another Year. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are a happily married, if annoyingly self-righteous couple ironically named Tom and Gerri. They're the kind of people everyone leans on for advice and support. One of these is alcoholic Mary in a scene-stealing turn by Lesley Manville. It's an emotionally charged performance that immediately invites us into the character's lost and lonely world as she endeavours to navigate her way through it.

The film didn't break new ground for Leigh or explore major issues, but for fans of the filmmaker it's in many ways akin to a greatest hits album. Combining captivating character study and interweaving humour with heartbreak, this wonderfully performed and beautifully shot film is brimming with humanity. Definitive Mike Leigh.

Grief

Following the revival of Ecstasy came Leigh's long-awaited new stage play. There was of course much fanfare, and tickets were on sale before there was even a title!

Long-time associate Lesley Manville starred as a 1950s widow, busying herself with mundane tasks as she navigates her way through grief while raising a teenage daughter single-handedly. Isolated from her friends, who are all married with successful children and social lives, Dorothy is a woman who's just about holding everything together.

The intimate space of the Cottesloe, now the Dorfman, worked well for such an understated drama. While some critics argued not enough was happening, long-time fans of Leigh were familiar with his close character studies and 'less is more' approach.

As with all of Leigh's work his cast shine with intrinsically designed and impeccably detailed performances. It lacks the originality and humour of Abigail's Party and is far quieter than Ecstasy. In itself, though, it works well as an exploration of family, routine, repression and trauma.

BWW Feature: The Best of Mike Leigh

Here's hoping we're treated to new work by Leigh in the not too distant future!

What are your favourite Leigh works? Let us know @BroadwayWorldUK

Photo credits: Tristram Kenton, John Haynes


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