Before the Party
Rodney Ackland, based on a short story by W Somerset Maugham
Almeida Theatre, London
From 21 March 2013 to 11 May 2013
Review by Philip Fisher
Under Matthew Dunster's direction, Before the Party comes over as an odd mixture of the farcical and the dramatic. That might be an accurate representation of Rodney Ackland's intentions when he adapted and updated a 1926 Somerset Maugham short story but there is also a possibility that the serious element was intended to prevail.
If so, a deeply-moving late speech, delivered with impeccable nuance by Katherine Parkinson in the role of Laura, encapsulates the pain of love beautifully. To advocates of that theory, this is the making of an evening that is viewed from the perspective of the young lady's sizeable bedroom at her family home at Luffingham somewhere in the Surrey stockbroker belt.
This plucky protagonist, who has recently returned from Africa's Gold Coast, is forced to share her life with a family that could alone justify the dismantling of the class system soon after 1949 when the play was written.
The Skinners are truly awful social climbers who would kill for a Tory parliamentary seat or even a smile from a duchess. As such, they are ripe material for some very funny moments as they battle to outdo each other in the snobbishness stakes.
The parents could have leapt straight out of Wodehouse. Father, played by Michael Thomas, is a small-minded lawyer with political ambitions that must not be thwarted. While he might care for his family, career is much more important.
Stella Gonet is hoity toity mother Blanche, who may lack brains but has probably read Debrett's from cover to cover. It runs in the family since one daughter, the jealously judgmental Kathleen, given the false gravitas of a stand-up comedienne by the disciplined Michelle Terry, takes Who's Who to bed and is not above declaiming outright anti-Semitism.
She also regards the main mission of her sad life as to debunk and belittle her widowed sister, recently returned from Africa and secretly engaged to Alex Price playing impecunious, ingratiating David. He is a good man who may redeem the kind of Skinner skeletons that provide a dramatic situation on which to hang the family comedy.
The other two members of the extended family are less stereotypical. "Pert", little Susan, the very self-assured Emily Lane on opening night, is a troubled teen who cannot understand adults—and brought up in this household who could?
The fount of all wisdom is June Watson's Nanny, who presides over "a kitchen full of prostitutes and Nazis" and knows when to ignore and when to soothe, much to the relief of all.
A significant proportion of the 2½ hours is taken up with hysterical fights and excessive posturing but there are some deeper moments that set the brain cells whirring.
The drama may sometimes take second place to the comedy but, with a dream cast, this proves to be an enjoyable revival that can still talk to viewers today, even though families like the Skinners are now very few and far between—thank goodness.