Set in the hinterland between the end of World War Two and rationing coming to its miserable conclusion, Rodney Ackland’s Before The Party is a portrait of a ‘typical’ middle-class family with a little too much money, not enough manners and a big heaving secret levered smack bang into the middle of things.
It’s about class and prejudice, morals and relationships, hypocrisy and honesty. It focuses on what happens when Katherine Parkinson’s Laura returns to her family home, sans her former husband and in love with a new man, the slightly mysterious and rather fun David (an underused Alex Price). As a long afternoon drags on, secrets are uncovered and tensions are exposed.
As you might expect from a play that sets everything in a single bedroom, the bosom of one’s family turns out to be a pretty horrible thing. Sister Kathleen (Michelle Terry, spectacularly dry) is spiteful, cruel and not a little anti-Semitic ("It is the limit, though, the way they worm themselves in everywhere"), utterly miserable alone but much happier ruining other people’s lives than sorting her own out, while clever little sister Susan (Emily Lane, excellent) is ignored and maligned despite her attempts to reach out to the wider community, forcing her towards an unhappy, snobbish future.
Parents Aubrey and Blanche (Michael Thomas and Stella Gonet) are as awful as one another, the former unseeing and utterly focused on his own political needs ("Anything that any of you do now is going to reflect on me, don't forget"), the latter false and manipulative. What a family.
While Matthew Dunster’s direction keeps the audience laughing uproariously and listening carefully at the correct moments, his direction lacks subtlety in places and the play itself refuses to consider character development for most. It’s also impossible to feel sympathy for any of the tremendously unlikeable main players - even Laura - and only Susan receives any credit in this respect.
The cast is strong and seasoned, which makes up for many things. June Watson is a particular highlight as the no-nonsense, all-seeing Nanny, and her entrances prove a breath of fresh air, even if she has little to do. Parkinson and Price have convincing chemistry together and Thomas's strong comic timing as blustery Aubrey is much welcomed.
This is a hard-working production from good actors of a medium-strength play with not enough emotional pull to make the heart thump. You’ll laugh, you’ll appreciate the situations they find themselves in and you'll come away having had a pleasant evening out at the theatre, but all in all, it's a bit of a mixed bag.