Thursday, 4 April 2013

Theatre review: Before the Party

The scene is set a couple of years after the War, and food rationing is still in place, leaving the more privileged classes a bit tetchy about their lack of options for dinner. But the Skinner family will soon find plenty more to worry about in Rodney Ackland's Before the Party, which Matthew Dunster revives at the Almeida. Anna Fleischle's set is framed as a 1940s cinema (a conceit extended to the ushers' outfits,) a nod to the salacious movies lawyer Aubrey Skinner (Michael Thomas) disapproves of, filled with stories of crimes of passion the likes of which are about to be reenacted in his own country home as the screen pulls back to reveal the bedroom of his eldest daughter, the recently-widowed Laura (Katherine Parkinson.) Less than a year after her husband's death she's planning to remarry, to David (Alex Price,) two years her junior and with no apparent financial prospects.

Based on a Somerset Maugham story, Ackland's play is a sharp little satire on class snobbery with a surprising amount of modern-day relevance. With Aubrey hoping to be chosen as Conservative candidate for an upcoming by-election, the family are keen to impress at a garden party they've been invited to, and Laura cutting her mourning period short could be seen as an embarrassment. It's the least of their worries though as the true circumstances behind her husband's death start to come to light.

Michelle Terry plays middle daughter Kathleen, the rather prim contrast to Parkinson's more fiery Laura. Terry gives a beautifully icy comic touch to the character's frequent admonishments of her sister, although she is allowed to thaw a bit more after the interval, revealing what may have made her the way she is. But the star of the first act is Stella Gonet as their mother Blanche, whose casually appalling pronouncements on everything from the Government to the kitchen staff (the family's horror at the cook being a Nazi sympathiser only barely trumping that at the kitchen maid being Jewish) provide the sharpest comic moments in an understatedly funny sequence.

In fact with the better-off grumbling about the difficulty of getting hold of foie gras while dismissing the poor, everyone denouncing the News of the World's sensationalism while eagerly reading an illicit copy whenever nobody's looking, and a couple of rants about immigration, this is a very cleverly chosen revival - at times it's hard to believe it really does date from 1949 and isn't written from a more modern perspective. (I doubt Blanche's more outrageously un-PC pronouncements were originally intended to get the shocked laughs they do now.)

In the second act the garden party has been rained off, and the Skinners have invited the people they want to impress round to dinner instead, so the pressure is on, and as the news about Laura's past continues to spread through the house the play takes on a sillier feel, a tonal shift that Dunster's production deals with smoothly. Similarly, a more quietly emotional moment near the end is well-handled by Parkinson and Price as their characters try to figure out where their revelations leave their relationship.

All the while, the only sensible response to the situation comes from the oft-ignored nanny (June Watson) while youngest daughter Susan (Anna Devlin, alternating with Polly Dartford and Emily Lane) is left to wonder at the madness of grown-ups. Before the Party feels like a breath of fresh air, a perfectly-judged, understated revival that trusts both the comedy and the drama to come out of the performances without trying too hard.

Before the Party by Rodney Ackland, based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, is booking until the 11th of May at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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