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Before The Party by Rodney Ackland is a chilling and comedic portrayal of the petty preoccupations of post-war Britain’s upper-middle class and their desire to hide their imperfections. Though this might sound a bit doomy and gloomy , I can guarantee you it will have you in stitches !
The Skinner family is trying to get back to the way things used to be before the war. Their daughter Laura (Katherine Parkinson) has just got back from Africa and is now a widow. With a new man in tow, Mr. David Marshall (Alex Price) she’s trying to get ready for a party. But what to wear ? What to wear?! She opts for the new pink dress but her jealous sister Kathleen (Michelle Terry) and highly superficial mother Blanche (Stella Gonet) couldn’t disagree more with this choice asking “What will people think if the sister’s wearing mourning and the widow’s dressed in pink”? Amongst all the arguing and disagreements, Laura confesses to her family about the horrific event that happened back in Africa and how she really became a widow is finally exposed. So, now what will people think of the Skinners?
Laura’s girly pink and white bedroom with a pesty, broken door knob made up the main stage of the set. However, the audience can see a set of stairs through the door window, where the family members constantly ascend and descend. This gave the house depth and provided a picture of the grandeur of the Skinner’s home. I found Director Matthew Dunster’s staging to be highly-stylised keeping the family in their habitual domestic places. However, this order would eventually get out of wack once tension and emotions started to rise proving that in times of crisis even the most’ demure classes can’t keep themselves together.
One of the most significant moments for me was at the beginning when Laura asks her new boyfriend why he cares so much about what kind of job he has; “aren’t you only marking time ?” As the little clock cleverly placed on the mantle ticked away, I thought to myself these people with their frivolous banter and concerns about what delicacies to have at dinner, what “so and so” was wearing to the party or how much they value other people’s opinions of themselves is just a way to mark time. It seems that anyone who resists the temptation to indulge in such banalities are cast aside as nuisances. When the youngest daughter Susan (Polly Dartford) asks her father, played hilariously well by Michael Thomas, to explain what happens to people if they sin, he tells her “If you train your mind to exclude certain thoughts, you’ll find that after a time, automatically, they cease to present themselves.” Quite an easy way out of answering one of life’s bigger questions posed by an innocent 13 year old kid!
Along with the excellent direction, stage set and costumes were some of the best performances I’ve seen at the Almeida. Michelle Terry plays the icy ,jealous and conniving sister with such precision that when she goes tete a’ tete with Katherine Parkinson, I thought they were really going to come to blows! The sibling rivalry felt visceral and made for two outstanding performances. Parkinson showed great vulnerability as Laura but also a fierceness that shaded the character. You felt like at any minute the woman could snap and when she tells her sister she “could kill her” you kind of believe it.
The casual and nonchalant offensive language which is thrown around against the Jews and the Germans paints a picture of an intolerant post-war Britain which might startle the audience, but the family hardly makes a flinch. It’s an insightful picture into what some people were feeling after the war even with the terrifying exposure of the holocaust. The performances, especially that of Whittingham, helped fill in some of the narrative gaps as the story of how her husband really died seemed a bit blurry to me. Despite this, I did leave wondering when I ‘ll get to see another Ackland production next in London.
Before The Party is on at the lovely Almedia Theatre till Saturday the 11th of May. Book online or call 02073594404.