Before the Party

Rodney Ackland based on a short story by W Somerset Maugham
Salisbury Playhouse
Salisbury Playhouse

Bathsheba Piepe and Matthew Romain Credit: Robert Workman
Matthew Romain and Bathsheba Piepe Credit: Robert Workman
Philip Bretherton and Sherry Baines Credit: Robert Workman

We’re in a large, rather upmarket bedroom. There’s an enormous double bed, a two-seater sofa and a coffee table. The back wall is decorated with dozens of little framed pictures. This is clearly a family who can, at the very least, afford to employ other people to do their dusting.

We’re given an indication of the way things are likely to go from the background music, "You always hurt the one you love". Okay. Housework is taken care of, only there’s obviously going to be a lot of emotional tidying up to be done here.

Two characters are on stage, Laura (Bathsheba Piepe), returned from Cape Town to England just four months after the death of her husband, and David (Matthew Romain), who wants to marry her. As other members of the household come and go, we are invited to join the various factions.

Do we share in their aspirations or do they just antagonise us? It’s easy to dislike the pompous, politically ambitious and overbearing father Aubrey (Philip Bretherton), the lawyer who will stoop to acting in divorces (but only ‘clean’ ones, you understand, nothing sordid) and who likes younger men to call him ‘sir.’

His references to the despised Williams children from Elm Tree Cottage, who lead a free and easy way of life and are secretly envied by the Skinner children, put them firmly into the category of people to be avoided. Then, this being only four years after the ending of WW2, he can loudly deplore the habit of people sleeping on top of one another in air raid shelters. As if they had a choice.

And then there’s Kathleen (Katherine Manners), the middle one of the three sisters, unmarried and jealously vindictive. You have to feel sorry for the youngest, the child Susan (Eleanor Bennett), the only one, it seems, apart from the Nanny (Roberta Kerr) to have her feet grounded in basic common sense.

I know. Was I the only one who wanted to rush up onto the stage and rescue her, the sweetie?

And the mother, Blanche (Sherry Baines)? She does her best, poor soul and we all sympathise, but, surrounded by that level of arrogance and conceit, will Laura and David ever find love’s true path? Is that business with the door lock just a metaphor for things to come? Will they be locked in by other people’s prejudices?

We leave the first half in a state of nail-biting suspense.

Because it is possible—indeed more than likely, in fact—that Laura actually killed her husband. Wasn’t Susan’s account of seeing a pig being butchered somehow rather prophetic? And yet more suited to Cook’s favourite News of the World?

But never mind. The important thing is—the secret, whether or not true—mustn’t get out, must it?

So off they will go to the upmarket party of the title, where Laura will have to outface the Bishop of Cape Town and her neighbours, Sir Arthur and Lady Boot, dressed, by her own choice and in deliberate contrast to the rest of her family’s deep mourning (for Harold of course, Laura’s late husband), in bright pink.

Does this sound a bit gloomy?

Rodney Ackland’s play is actually based on a Somerset Maugham story, so you can expect plenty of irony and, in consequence, plenty of laughs.

And I don’t think I’m the only member of the audience to have resolved to look out for more Maugham short stories in the library.

Reviewer: Anne Hill

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