Friday 5 April 2013

Theatre Review: Before The Party (Almeida)

Alex Price and Katherine Parkinson in Before the Party (Photo: Keith Pattison)

Of all the playwrights swept aside by the Royal Court revolution, Rodney Ackland had a more chequered career than most. Celebrated in the 1930s and 40s, when plays like Birthday and Strange Orchestra were big hits, derided in the 1950s when The Pink Room bombed, Ackland ended up enjoying a late renaissance thanks to the Orange Tree, whose rediscovery of The Pink Room in the late 1980s led to Ackland rewriting the play for TV and the NT as Absolute Hell to great acclaim. Scattered Ackland productions have followed this, including, at the Orange Tree in 2004, Ellie  Jones 's revival of Strange Orchestra: one of my all-time favourite productions. 

I think there'll be very few audience members who don't leave Matthew Dunster's revival of Before The Party at the Almeida hoping to see yet more of Ackland's work on the UK stage. For Dunster gives Ackland's 1949 play a truly luscious staging here, one that reveals the playwright as a distinctive anatomist of English mores, a satirist for whom wit doesn't exclude sympathy. From its cheeky animated opening to its perfectly judged end, this is the kind of confident production that the viewer watches in complete happiness, and the best that I've seen at the Almeida since A Delicate Balance.

Adapted from a W. Somerset Maugham short story, the play focuses on a few fraught hours in the household of the Skinner family as they prepare for - and then return from - a social-climbing function that the father, Aubrey (Michael Thomas) - a lawyer pursuing political office - can't afford to miss.  Recently returned to the family fold is eldest daughter Laura (Katherine Parkinson), a widow with a new man, David (Alex Price), in tow. This set-up has caused some consternation in the family already - especially from Laura's uptight sister Kathleen (Michelle Terry). But the drama gets a further kick when Laura ends up making a confession that threatens the family's position - one that might just have been overheard by her inquisitive 13-year-old sister, Susan.

A summary of the theme of Before the Party - the moral bankruptcy of the middle classes, post WWII - may make you groan, but the play is more nuanced than such a description suggests. What's admirable about Ackland is that, even as he subjects most of the characters to satiric treatment, he doesn't make them one-dimensional monsters as a lesser writer might. Rather, they remain all-too-human, even at their pettiest and most self-preserving. The material may not be Ackland's originally but he succeeds in making it his own: he's a writer who can create a wonderful comic hum scene-by-scene, as his characters interact, and who can swerve a moment from merriment to melancholy with consummate skill.

Dunster's production is fully alert to these sharp shifts of tone and presents the play with clarity and conviction. He's helped by a creamily gorgeous design by Anna Fleischle and by performances that are everything they should be. Katherine Parkinson is wonderfully sympathetic as she reveals the deep emotions that Laura  has had to hide and her insecurity about the prospect of future happiness. Michelle Terry, last seen rocking out at the Royal Court in In The Republic of Happiness, here makes Kathleen the hilarious epitome of uptightness: just listen to her bite into her description of Laura as "man-mad." Stella Gonet twitters gleefully as the daffy mother, June Watson is endearing as the family's Nanny, and there's fine work from Polly Dartford as Susan (one of three young actresses alternating the role), who declares early on that she's "going to take poison before I get old" and who by the end of the play has more reason than ever to question the conduct of her elders. A delicious evening all round.

The production runs until 11th May. Further information at the Almeida website.

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