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A CurtainUp London London Review
Before the Party

"They are the most dreadful people. The father is an artist." — Kathleen
Before the Party Alex Price as David and Katherine Parkinson as Laura (Photo: Keith Pattison)
Written in the late 1940s by Rodney Ackland, but based on an ealier short story by Somerset Maugham, , Before the Party, was a hit in London's West End running for 100 performances. It is revived by Matthew Dunster at the Almeida in a witty production but the question for me is how the 1949 audience would have responded to the extreme comments by the middle classes condemning anyone from a different class. Of course that is because it is only now that these outrageous remarks seem amusing and shocking. Then, I suspect they were how people approached otherness, with suspicion, disdain and ridicule. The lapse of time has served to heighten the biting comedy.

Curiously all the scenes take place in Laura Whittingham's (Katherine Parkinson) bedroom. An animated drawn introduction shows us the large Edwardian country house where the Skinners live in commuter belt Surrey.

David Marshall (Alex Price) has proposed to Laura, whose husband Harold died of malaria eight months ago in Africa, but she is calling the engagement off. Her caustic, straitlaced, unmarried sister Kathleen Skinner (Michelle Terry) is most unpleasant and vindictive. Kathleen claims everything she does is for her sister's wellbeing. Their mother Blanche (Stella Gonet) is rather flaky but her husband Aubrey (Michael Thomas) is hoping to be adopted as the parliamentary candidate for the local Conservatives and so the garden party they are about to go to is a form of social networking, but before that term was invented. Laura is annoying her sister by coming out of mourning for the garden party. Kathleen has been hobnobbing with a golf club group which included the Bishop of Cape Town and has discovered that Harold did not die of malaria but of something else.

The first act is high comedy, a more recent comedy of social manners and affectation but every bit as biting as Sheridan, Goldsmith or Farquhar, and made ridiculous when seen by twenty first century eyes. Some of the comedy is down to the timing of the delivery. Blanche says about Harold, "He seemed to like the life in West Africa . . . despite the snakes and the natives." In the cold light of print, it doesn't seem very funny at all but when the delicious Stella Gonet lingers over the drawbacks to the colonial life in her narcissistic way, it is sheer delight.

There is consternation downstairs when they discover that the cook has Fascist leanings and sympathies with Hitler's recently toppled regime and has locked Muriel the maid in a cupboard because, "She's a Jewess". The cook is sacked because this news might blight the selection process and rapidly re-employed when the local bigwigs are invited to dinner and there is no-one to prepare a feast.

Susan (Polly Dartford/Anna Devlin/Emily Lane) the youngest sister who isn't meant to hear adult conversations spends her time listening at doors and tells us that she has heard that, "There are 62 American babies in post war Luffingham, the village they live in." This is the age of rationing and Blanche complains that charwomen have increased the price of their clothing coupons, oblivious to the socially divisive implications of her statement. She is buying the coupons on the black market from women who can't afford new clothes. Petrol is in short supply and it looks as if the family will have to walk three miles to the party because they don't want to be seen to be buying petrol on the black market.

The design for Laura's bedroom is all swags and dusty raspberry pink and we can see behind, through the door light, people coming up and down stairs. Anna Fleischle's 1940s dresses are wonderful although we all feel for poor Susan being forced into the over frilled dull blue children's party frock.

The performances are excellent. Michelle Terry plays a part I wouldn't have cast her in and she is superb. Her acting range is without question and no wonder she has already picked up some Best Actress awards as she reinvents herself each time in challenging roles. Katherine Parkinson conveys the right sort of laid back personality for Laura with her unique vocal quality and the director has reigned in her natural ebullience so she is also full of guilt about the ending of her marriage to an alcoholic. June Watson plays the down to earth Nanny who, like Susan, finds out what is happening through closed doors.

The second act is a darker comedy set after the party and before another one, a dinner party. Typical English summer weather of pouring rain has meant that the garden party has been abandoned and everyone is back in Laura's bedroom. Why do they always meet in the bedroom we ask? The hypocrisy of Laura's family will come under close scrutiny in an ending which I cannot reveal, nor did I guess. Laura will eventually tell the waspish Kathleen exactly what she thinks about her meddling, "All my life, Kathleen, I've suffered from your determination to help me."

The interest generated by Matthew Dunster's Before the Party should have producers looking at the potential of Rodney Ackland's other plays. Well worth the trip to Islington!

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Before the Party
Written by Rodney Ackland
Directed by Matthew Dunster

Starring: Michelle Terry, Alex Price, Katharine Parkinson
With: Stella Gonet, Michael Thomas, June Watson, Polly Dartford/Anna Devlin/Emily Lane
Designed by Anna Fleischle
Lighting Designer: Philip Gladwell
Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes including an interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 11th May 2013
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 30th March 2013 matinee performance at the Almeida Theatre, Upper Street, London N1 1TA (Tube: Angel)

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