Before the Party

Posted on: 02 May 2013 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green finds a bitingly funny rediscovered gem at the Almeida Theatre, London.

Before the PartyA sizzling portrayal of the upper middle classes adjusting to post-war life is provided by Rodney Ackland in his unjustly neglected 1949 play before the party (Almeida theatre), based on a short story by Somerset Maugham and directed by Matthew Dunster.

The setting is the Surrey commute-belt where the Skinner family are buying their way out of austerity at a time of continued rationing and trying to return to normal. There’s the domineering mother Blanche, the sullen lawyer father and would-be politician Aubrey who lets the fear of golf-course gossip affect his moral outlook, the twisted and bitter unmarried daughter Kathleen and the mischievous, down-to-earth younger daughter Susan.

Life is turned upside down, however, as they prepare for the latest social gathering by the revelations of widowed (but not alone) eldest daughter Laura, recently returned from Africa, about her husband’s death and her ‘scandalous’ future plans – she imparts a shocking secret that threatens to ruin more than one party on the climb to social success.  

Director Matthew Dunster milks every last drop of Ackland’s sparkling script which delivers a rebuke to hypocrisy and overbearing propriety. He successfully conjures up a world where the right dress is paramount and awkward emotion is something to be swept swiftly under the carpet. Furthermore he skilfully avoids making his fractious family two-dimensional caricatures, but rather involves us in their predicaments. So that we laugh with the characters, not at them, not least at the unfortunate discovery that cook is an unreconstructed Nazi!

But what really gives this excellent revival its great appeal are the top-flight performances from a first rate cast most notably Stella Gonet as the flibbertigibbet matriarch Blanche, Michael Thomas as the blustering Tory father Aubrey, Michelle Terry as the hatchet-faced resentful sister Kathleen, Polly Dartford as the one level-headed family member Susan (a role she shares with two other young actresses) and June Watson as the no-nonsense nanny. Best of all, though, is Katherine Parksinson, who imbues the role of the widowed Laura with just the right mixture of quiet anguish surging, anger and insouciance, as she is caught in the maelstrom of snobbery, hypocrisy, blind self-interest and downright cruelty that whirls around her.

The elegant, spotless bedroom-cum-sitting room setting created by Anna Fleischle adds much to the atmosphere and realism of the drama.

This then is that rarity in the theatre-a bitingly funny rediscovered gem that I will not forget in a hurry. Surely a West End transfer beckons!

Runs until May 11

Box office: 020 7359 4404

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