Reviewed by Tony Peters
The British obsession with class and social standing is at the heart of Rodney Ackland’s bitingly funny satire, that’s based on a short story by W Somerset Maugham.
It’s the years immediately following the war and the people of this sceptered isle are struggling to get back on their feet.
Among them is the upper-middle-class Skinner family, who live a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses existence in deepest Surrey. But even their relatively comfortable life is not immune to the effects of the rationing still in place — although for them it’s more of an inconvenience than a genuine source of hardship.
Back into the family fold comes daughter Laura (Katherine Parkinson), home from Africa following the tragic death of her husband, and shocking everyone by already having a new man in tow, when the family — particularly sister Kathleen (a brilliantly acerbic Michelle Terry) — think she should still be in mourning.
And it’s Laura’s situation that proves the catalyst for confrontations between family members. Dark secrets are revealed and long-held resentments come to the surface, plunging the family into crisis when they’d much sooner focus on not committing any social faux pas at a forthcoming party.
This is a wickedly funny play that has enormous fun at the expense of the British class system and its intricate dos and don’ts — no matter what disaster befalls them, they still find time to discuss whether father wearing a buttonhole to the party would be good or bad form. But there are also moments of heartbreaking poignancy as Laura becomes more and more isolated in her own family home because of the sheer selfishness of those closest to her.
It’s superbly acted by a terrific cast, who move effortlessly from comedy through melancholy to high drama. Stella Gonet and Michael Thomas are wonderful as the mother and father at least giving pretence of trying to hold things together, but never really losing sight of their own ambitions and image.
But the real performance of the evening is that of Katherine Parkinson as Laura, who displays a real talent for tragedy alongside the impeccable comic timing that we already knew she had.
Add to this Anna Fleischle’s sumptuous design plus some inventive projections at the start of each act and Before the Party proves to be something of a treat.
Before the Party plays at the Almeida Theatre until 11th May 2012. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
Written by Rodney Ackland
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Laura Whittingham Katherine Parkinson
Blanche Skinner Stella Gonet
Aubrey Skinner Michael Thomas
Kathleen Skinner Michelle Terry
David Marshall Alex Price
Susan Skinner Polly Dartford (played at other performances by Anna Devlin or Emily Lane)
Nanny June Watson