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Obituary: Michael Abbensetts

Michael Abbensetts. Photo: Anton Phillips

Reviewing a revival of his play Alterations at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1986, the then editor of The Stage Peter Hepple remarked that “Michael Abbensetts is the black playwright who comes closest to writing the type of play with which white British theatregoers feel most comfortable”.

Hepple went on to describe the chief characteristic of the writer’s work as “essentially domestic comedy which depicts people struggling against the difficulties of ordinary everyday living”.

It was no accident that Abbensetts’ own work seemed to fit so neatly into an existing template. Born in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana), it was on a visit to see John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in Montreal, where he studied at university, that he decided to move to London to become a writer.

Although he had already begun writing short stories, the play form proved a richer provocation. Sweet Talk, his first piece for theatre, depicted the lives of Caribbean immigrants living in a Shepherd’s Bush bedsit fraught with marital tension, infidelity, gambling addiction and attempted suicide. It shared the 1972 George Devine award with Mustapha Matura, and was seen at the Royal Court Upstairs the following year, directed by Stephen Frears.

In 1973, Abbensetts made his television debut with The Museum Attendant, a day in the life of the eponymous West Indian guard newly separated from his wife. The Stage described it as “totally mature… beautifully constructed”.

The next decade proved especially productive, with Abbensetts writing for both stage (he was appointed writer in residence at the Royal Court in 1974) and television. In the process, he found himself unavoidably involved in the emerging debate about identity and opportunities for writers and actors from ethnic minorities.

With Black Christmas in 1977, Abbensetts attempted to normalise attitudes towards Britain’s newly prominent minorities and prompted the cultural historian Stephen Bourne to hail it as “one of the best television dramas of the 1970s”.

With the following year’s Empire Road, a soap-cum-sitcom about West Indian life in a Birmingham suburb, Abbensetts managed to penetrate mainstream television. With a cast led by Norman Beaton, it ran for 15 episodes over two series.

The New End Theatre in Hampstead staged the premiere of Alterations in 1978, with Don Warrington as a put-upon, would-be fashion entrepreneur battling against deadlines and a deteriorating marriage.

Reaching back to the faded hopes of the first post-war influx of immigrants to Britain during the Windrush era, Samba at the Tricycle Theatre in 1980 reunited Abbensetts with Beaton, who played a once-popular 1950s band leader now reduced to running an ailing backstreet mini-cab business.

Beaton was also the lead in Abbensetts’ Easy Money (BBC2 Playhouse, 1982) as an actor down on his luck and confronting the growing racism that seeped out of the divisive Thatcher era. He returned again in Abbensetts’ 1994 Channel 4 series Little Napoleons, in which he played opposite Saeed Jaffrey (in a cast that also included Lesley Manville and Simon Callow) as rival solicitors vying for business, prestige and power on the local council.

Abbensetts’ later plays included The Outlaw (Carib Theatre, 1983), a tale of the unlikely relationship between a half-caste petty crook on the make and a Polish-Jewish refugee, and El Dorado, a spiky examination of Black middle-class emigre life in a British-themed resort in Spain (Theatre Royal Stratford East, 1984).

The Lion, a hard-hitting portrait of an arrogant former prime minister of a Caribbean island exiled to Britain, was produced by Talawa in 1993 and seen at the Cochrane Theatre in London before touring to Jamaica.

Abbensetts’ last work was an episode of BBC daytime medical soap Doctors in 2001, after which he concentrated on teaching at the University of North London (now London Metropolitan University) and the City and Guilds of London Art School.

Michael John Abbensetts was born on June 8, 1938 and died on November 24, aged 78.

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