party cast

Before the Party

Malvern Theatres

*****

BEFORE the party explores the life of an upper middle-class family after the Second World War as Britain was trying to recover its equilibrium, when rations were still an issue, when Nazism and Fascism were still the hot political concerns of the day.

Robert Ackland based the play on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham which focusses on the Skinner family. Laura has just returned from Africa after the death of her husband and is embarking on a new relationship with David Marshall, but as the play develops we discover there are some skeletons in the cupboard.

The play is both comic and serious: we are greatly entertained by the very Englishness of the family, by the contrasts and eccentricities of the characters. Blanche Skinner, Mother, is a cross between Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest. Aubrey, her husband, is a rather dignified but ineffectual man in the context of his family, where he is surrounded by women whose occasional hysterical outbursts he is little able to control.

The humour derives from the verbal exchanges, the characterisations and contrasts, the absurdity of some simple everyday issues such as a defective door-handle! But beyond the humour and entertainment there is a more serious, if gentle, satire and exposé of the hypocrisy and trivialities of their lives, with their prejudices and very politically incorrect views in today’s world.

The family’s obvious disdain for commercial travellers and those who sit in the cheap seats at the theatre reveal their snobbishness.

The peal of thunder that opens the Second Act seems to foreshadow the cracking open of the hypocritical shell of their lives and the moral weakness that permeates their family.

The other individual who furthers this is Susan, the young daughter, whom they try to shield from the harsh realities of their lives and their brokenness, but who actually is far too perspicacious to be put off the scent, as she listens at the keyhole and probes with embarrassing questions. Her words conclude the play: ‘There is no excuse for grown-ups’ behaviour, they make me sick!’

Ackland’s play is highly reminiscent of Chekhov with its naturalistic style, its mixture of humour, pathos and exposé, with its verbal sophistication and wit. Bill Kenwright’s production is a truly charming evening of subtle entertainment, directed by Tom Conti who also plays the father, Aubrey Skinner.

Tom Conti’s somewhat understated performance is very entertaining and quietly compelling, where that of Gwen Taylor as Blanche is more extravagant and hilarious. Her emotional outbursts, her hysteria at times, along with the times when she is besmirched with mud and rolling down her stockings provide a huge amount of fun.

Aubrey’s attempts to hold the family and the servant team together reveal a man struggling to cope with life, as he struggles to answer his daughter Susan’s very pointed questions about the Bible and Hell!

Eleanor Thorn as Susan is quite a thorn in the side of the family at times as they try to side-track and silence her and avoid her becoming aware of their embarrassments and shame. Eleanor does a very persuasive job and carries the role off very successfully.

The rest of the cast perform with similar skill and conviction: Carol Starks, as Laura, and Elizabeth Payne, as her sister Kathleen, typify the sibling rivalry and jealousy that can easily lie under the surface of family posturing. Peter Sandys-Clarke is a charmingly debonair David Marshall and Laoisha O’Callaghan, the Nanny, completes a strong cast.

The set consists of a very stylish and ornate bedroom of the time with a particularly effective bay window to the right. It is very well used as at various time members of the household are addressed from the first floor through it, as well as being the source of various significant external sound effects.

Itis not an action piece that will set all generations alight, but it is a very delightful and intellectually stimulating piece, a stylish play that deserves to enjoy good audiences this week in Malvern. To 03-10-15

Tim Crow

28-09-15 

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