Writer: W. Somerset Maugham
Adaptor: Rodney Ackland
Director: Ryan McBryde
ReviewerL David Jobson
Written in 1949, Rodney Ackland’s Before the Party turns Somerset Maugham’s 1922 short story into a biting satire on changing views to the class system following the war. With plenty of zest, this latest revival directed by Ryan McBryde is a delectable production.
It is a lovely summer afternoon in the Skinner household as they prepare to go a party, where they hope to advance up the social ladder. However, things seem less tranquil for their daughter Laura. Eight months after her husband’s death abroad, she decides to wear pink to the party, rather than black, and rumours are flying around about the circumstances of his death.
Before the Party has the hallmarks of a Noel Coward play. Against James Turner’s opulent set of Laura’s bedroom in the Skinner family’s countryside house, the shenanigans of the upper class are put on full display. Behind the veneer of propriety and morality the hypocrisy reeks. It’s this hypocrisy that the cast portrays with relish. Sherry Barnes lives in a fantasy world as the mother, Blanche. The slightest mishap is enough to ruin her day. She shies away from responsibility leaving the house in chaos at times.
Philip Bretherton huffs profusely as the indignant but spineless father, Aubrey and Katherine Manners as the virtuous Kathleen gives a splendid portrayal of a character always taking the moral high ground, she criticises the character of others and tells on them from behind their back. Is it out of moral duty or because of a deep-seated jealousy? The play leaves that to the audience to decide.
Ackland’s mockery of the family is at times a little heavy-handed. There are long stretches of the family panicking at the slightest interference to their tranquil lives, which brings story progression to a halt. Once the family is established by the mid point of the first act the play seems to have nowhere else to go. That is until the play takes a dark turn. Gradually Laura reveals the circumstances of her late husband’s death with the result that the family’s pursuit of social mobility before their children’s happiness comes under scrutiny. Even when all is revealed all they can think of is how they can face going to the party
Among all this, Bathsheba Piepe and Matthew Romain keep the play grounded in their portrayal of Laura and David. Romain’s character could be fleshed out more, especially around his time during the war, still, there is a genuine and sincere chemistry between the two as their revelations put their trust in each other to the test, with a poignant conclusion. Despite their history, this pair make up two of the few reasonable characters to be found in this quagmire of hypocrisy.
Probably the sanest character is found in Eleanor Bennett’s portrayal of the youngest sister, Susan, she may be a rebellious little monster at times, listening at keyholes and sneaking off to the cinema, but Bennett gives a level-headed and balanced performance.
At close to three hours running time the play could do with a little bit of a shave, still, even if the comedy lacks a touch of finesse, Rodney Ackland has adapted a fun satire on the rich, which is delivered with zest by a strong cast.
Runs until 27 May 2017 | Image: Robert Workman