The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Spring 2013
A popular West End playwright of the 1930s and 1940s, Rodney Ackland is almost totally forgotten today, though this sprightly production of his 1949 comedy may well spark a revival.
Part social satire, part black comedy and part domestic drama, Before The Party juggles its very different parts more successfully than you might think possible. And if it ultimately can't keep all its balls in the air, it remains entertaining, engrossing and thought-provoking in equal measure.
A conservative, conventional Middle England family don't quite know what to do with their black sheep daughter/sister, a recent widow who has thrown off her mourning and begun dating before the prescribed year.
The play has a lot of fun at their distress – father who just wants his home and his career to run smoothly and wishes someone else would make that happen, airheaded mother for whom wearing the wrong style of hat is as much of a social problem as she can cope with, and spinster sister whose only joys in life are disapproving of everything and listening to gossip that gives her new things to disapprove of.
But as soon as we've settled into laughing at their inability to cope with the merry widow, we discover that that wearing a coloured dress to a party is the least of her transgressions. A string of revelations, mainly about her late husband and her marriage, move beyond the embarrassing to the morally dubious and even criminal.
And here is where the play gets deeper and darker than the opening scenes suggested, because we may well find ourselves uncomfortably reacting in common with those we've been laughing at.
Meanwhile Ackland has also been moving quietly into Terrence Rattigan country by showing us that the comic characters are the products of a culture that has not prepared them to deal with the hard facts and strong emotions of reality, and are worthy of more sympathy than disdain.
Director Matthew Dunbar and his cast manoeuvre their way through these changes in tone with remarkable success, losing control only when the playwright himself, sensing an ending approaching, has to rush to wrap things up and leaves too many emotional loose ends hanging.
Before that point the only occasional wrong note comes from the fact that his satire leads the playwright to make the comic characters near-caricatures, and the actors – Michael Thomas as father, Stella Gonet as mother and Michelle Terry as sister – don't always escape the temptation to overplay them as broad cartoons.
In the central role Katherine Parkinson is clearly most comfortable in the early scenes where she can comment wryly on the shallowness of the others, but as her character loses the moral high ground and they become more sympathetic, her control over the characterisation wavers.
Were Before The Party a complete success at all it sets out to do, it would be a work of major stature. Flawed in small ways as it is, it's just a whole lot better than most of the other plays around, and a welcome rediscovery.
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Review - Before The Party - Almeida Theatre 2013