Before The Party – April 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Rodney Ackland

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 10th April 2013

Based on a Somerset Maugham short story, this is a brilliant play in an excellent production. The performances from the cast were all flawless, and even though our seats were far enough to one side for me to miss the odd line here or there, it wasn’t enough to diminish my enjoyment. I would happily see more of this writer’s work if we get the chance.

The stage wasn’t just set up as a pros arch, it also had a flat neon surround with curtain to create the feeling of an old-style cinema; the ushers were in suitable uniforms too. The play began with a short animation projected onto this curtain of a man walking across the screen as the play’s title unfolded behind him. This was followed by a cartoon of a lane leading up to a house. The man walked along this lane and threw some gravel up at one of the windows, calling out somebody’s name. As the curtain drew back we could see the inside of Laura’s bedroom, obviously the one whose window had just come under attack. It was on two levels, with a curving step separating the rear of the stage from the front. The window was left of centre at the back with the door to the landing and wardrobe on the left of that and the bed on the right – a double bed for reasons which soon became apparent. At the front there was a fireplace on the left with a comfy chair beside it, and a table with two chairs set more centrally. A dressing table with a stool stood against the right wall with the door to Kathleen’s room next to it. Kathleen was Laura’s sister, and had these sisters been on good terms this arrangement of rooms might have been workable; as it was we got to see some of the worst aspects of sisterly behaviour in this play.

The situation was explained gradually and with a great deal of humour. Laura had been married to Harold, a bigwig out in West Africa, who had died of malaria some eight months ago. Laura and her son Jeremy had returned to England – I assume Jeremy was at boarding school as we never saw him – and Laura had moved back into the family home. It was summer, and everyone was getting ready for a garden party which was going to be attended by a number of people who could influence whether Laura’s father would be selected to stand for Parliament. A bishop from Africa would also be attending, and it was information from him about Harold’s death which triggered the revelations of the play.

Along with Laura and Kathleen, the family party included their father (a lawyer), their mother (a martyr to dyspepsia), a younger sister Susan, just twelve, and Mr Marshall, a close friend of Laura’s who had served in Yugoslavia during the war and who now had difficulty sticking with a regular job. The servants were frequently mentioned, along with the difficulty of actually getting any, but we only met Nanny, a dependable no-nonsense sort who could be relied on to do the right thing. Given that two of the others included a former Nazi and a Jewish refugee, the house was anything but peaceful.

With Laura choosing to go to the party in a pink dress instead of her mourning black and news of her imminent engagement to David Marshall leaking out before she had intended, the family members were soon in a tizzy, and when she finally told her parents and Kathleen the truth about her husband’s death, it was more than they bargained for. Not a great surprise to us, as we’ve seen plenty of Maugham’s work before, but shocking to the other characters all the same.

The family was now in a complete uproar, trying to keep Susan in ignorance, hoping that Nanny hadn’t heard and so on, while the father was very funny with his constant concern about how all this might reflect on him. Eventually Laura had to tell David the truth as well, and his acceptance of her regardless, or perhaps even because of her secret, sealed their relationship. There were other revelations about David which totally altered the family’s attitude towards him, but even so Laura and David were wise to clear out at the end of the play instead of staying for dinner and a blessing from the Archbishop. The play ended with Susan complaining to Nanny about how adults made her sick, an understandable reaction given her family.

The cast were all absolutely splendid. Katherine Parkinson gave a strong central performance as Laura and was well matched by Alex Price as David, whose experiences in Yugoslavia undoubtedly gave him enough insight to handle his fiancée’s past. Michael Thomas as the father was magnificently pompous with flashes of kindness, and Stella Gonet was marvellously delusional as the mother, coming up with what she regarded as the only ‘rational’ explanation of events. June Watson was underused in the Nanny role, but she did have some nice scenes, and was the only character other than David with genuine sympathy for Laura. I think that Polly Dartford played Susan today, and she was fine as the annoying younger sister.

While it was a great ensemble performance, I must single out Michelle Terry as Kathleen, the envious sister, who was determined to report even the slightest breach of the social mores to whatever authority figure she could find. She was completely wound up with frustrated fury, and yet also thrilled to be able to point the finger of disapproval at her errant sister. I did think she would have been much easier to get on with if only she had a sex life, though with her behaviour it seemed unlikely anyone, male or female, would want her. It was a brilliant performance, giving us the first laughs of the day with her snobbish comments about Luffingham not being West Africa, and there were plenty more laughs during the afternoon from her and the rest of the cast. A deserved hit for the Almeida.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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