Theatre review: Before the Party, Almeida, London

Sheer, spiky bliss

Paul Taylor
Monday 01 April 2013 09:05
Comments
Before The Party by Rodney Ackland
based on a story by Somerset Maugham
directed by Matthew Dunster
Before The Party by Rodney Ackland based on a story by Somerset Maugham directed by Matthew Dunster

Once the audience gets onto its wavelength, there are yelps of scandalised and delightedly incredulous laughter throughout Matthew Dunster's miraculously well-acted revival of this forgotten 1949 gem by Rodney Ackland.

This was a dramatist who was much tougher-minded, unconventional and influenced by the Russian way with tragicomedy (he adapted Bulgakov) than most of the other playwrights who were sidelined by the Royal Court revolution.  His career effectively ended in 1952, when he was 44, with the disastrous (and unconscionable) critical reception of The Pink Room, his play set amongst the Bohemian flotsam and jetsam in a Soho drinking club in that strange period between VE Day and the Labour victory.

Before the Party is, contrastingly, set in leafy Surrey amidst the well-heeled middle-classes in 1949. Rationing is a bore, where those needful treats are concerned, but you can can get foie gras sent from America (“you mustn't spoil it for me by telling me how it's made”). And there are ways round the petrol restrictions which is just as well for the Skinner family who are preparing to go a social climbing lunchtime function that the strenuously huffy-stuffy lawyer father (Alex Price) can't afford to miss. He's up in front of the Conservative Party selection committee on the Monday. 

Then, though, everything starts to go wrong. One of his daughters, back from Africa, insists on wearing pink rather than mourning and then, with Katherine Parkinson brilliantly using that built-in equivocation in her voice between chuckle and sob, she is goaded into telling them part of the devastating real reason she's a widow. Michelle Terry is hilarious as his other daughter whom romantic jealousy has turned into a glowering career snitch, prognathous of jaw, whose designs on the Golf Club hierarchy look equally doomed. Cook (apparently an unreconstructed Mosleyite) has locked one of the maids in a cupboard simply for being a Jewess. Oh and both the 13 year old daughter (excellent Emily Lane) and June Watson's movingly forthright elderly Nanny may have overheard the terrible revelation.

Part of the comedy flows from the way that, even when talk of murder, suicide, antisemitism et al  silences this crew for a moment, heartless self-interest and fixation with social standing assert themselves afresh with undiminished vigour.  The prejudices are ventilated with an outrageously blithe take-it-for-granted air.  Stella Gonet is beyond praise as the mother who keeps up a running on what it is all doing to her stomach and director Dunster retains wondrous control of the play's calculated but tricky waverings of mood. Sheer spiky bliss.

To 11 May; 020 7359 4404

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in