Review Round-up: Critics praise Dunster's Before the Party
Matthew Dunster's production of Before the Party opened at the Almeida Theatre last week (28 March 2013, previews from 21 March).
Based on a short story written by W Somerset Maugham, the play is written by Rodney Ackland. The story follows the newly-widowed Laura and the rest of the Skinner family as they attempt to adjust to post-war life.
Cast includes Stella Gonet, Katherine Parkinson, Alex Price and Michelle Terry. It runs at the Almeida Theatre until 11 May 2013.
...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... 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.
...Director Matthew Dunster, increasingly a name to watch, milks every last drop of possibility out of Ackland’s sparkling 1949 script... A high-flying cast hits all the right notes... If there’s a slightly awkward sense in the first half that we’re laughing at the Skinner family rather than with them, everything straightens out in the second as the social comedy edges into deeper and darker terrain. Laura, making a bolt for happiness, wishes to remarry in haste. Before then, though, everyone must dress for dinner.
It's an old rule that dramatists need to show a measure of sympathy, even to dislikable characters... but it eventually becomes a bit tiring to see so many Aunt Sallies knocked down... What we get is a ruthless dissection of the family's snobbery, hypocrisy and, in the case of Laura's sister Kathleen, unrelieved vindictiveness. A play that at first diverts you with its satirical portrait of upper-middle-class moral panic, not least at the discovery that the cook is an unreconstructed Nazi, eventually turns into something more biliously misanthropic... Matthew Dunster's bright, breezy production papers over the play's cracks with the help of some good acting... Ackland could sympathise with the underdog: his dramatic failing was an inability to get inside the skin of the class enemy.
...This 1949 play by Rodney Ackland, based on a Somerset Maugham story and set in commuter Surrey, is a treat... At first it seems as if only the glamorous widow Laura (Katherine Parkinson, in superb form) is a real, complex and suffering human being, so hemmed in is she by social grotesques... Emily Lane on opening night was touchingly fretful in her party frills... One by one the absurd, snobbish, panicking family members with their dreadful values become victims of real emotion, as Laura steels herself to tell the truth to her seemingly insouciant fiancé (Alex Price), who is hiding his own wartime scars. Never a dull moment or a misjudged move. Bliss.
Once the audience gets onto its wavelength, there are yelps of scandalised and delightedly incredulous laughter throughout Matthew Dunster's miraculously well-acted revival of this forgotten 1949 gem by Rodney Ackland... Katherine Parkinson brilliantly uses that built-in equivocation in her voice between chuckle and sob... Michelle Terry is hilarious as his other daughter... Stella Gonet is beyond praise as the mother who keeps up a running on what it is all doing to her stomach and director Dunster retains wondrous control of the play's calculated but tricky waverings of mood. Sheer spiky bliss.
...Ackland couldn’t have drawn a more selfish bunch than the Skinners, who demand the ‘absolute truth’ but only if it suits them. Director Matthew Dunster plays up their ghastliness to the point of two-dimensional caricature in this revival, highlighted by rather unnecessary projected animations at the start of each act. It provides plenty of laughs but perhaps dents the force of Ackland’s attack... Nevertheless, there are fine performances from the cast... the real stand-out is Katherine Parkinson as Laura, caught in the maelstrom of snobbery, hypocrisy, blind self-interest and downright cruelty that whirls around her. Her faltering delivery, teetering between suppressed fury and deep sadness, adds depth and poignancy to her character’s plight.