Review: Before the Party

Family falling apart farcically


Any play that conjures the line, “I’ve got a kitchen full of prostitutes and Nazis”, has to have something going for it. In Rodney Ackland’s post-war, Surrey-set family drama, in which the mantle of respectability enjoyed by the highly middle-class Skinner family cracks and then disintegrates, the line of dialogue arises out of a sub-plot concerning the family’s (off-stage) German cook and Jewish housekeeper.

They don’t get on, and the former, whose fascist views are as plain as that of Sunderland FC’s new manager, has locked the latter, who used to hang out with American GIs and would do so again given half a chance, in a kitchen cupboard.

Farce mingles with something darker, and Matthew Dunster’s production is unsure which of these tones to strike. So we get plenty of both.

The plot proper, based on a Somerset Maugham short story, centres on the eldest of the Skinners’ three daughters, Laura (The IT Crowd star Katherine Parkinson), whose relationship with well-spoken, dissolute, David (played with high style by Alex Price), is deemed to be unseemly in the extreme by her parents, Aubrey and Blanche.

Laura should still be in mourning after the death of her husband, they say. It is the manner of that death, revealed late on in the play, that blows apart the family’s carefully tended reputation and undermines Aubrey’s hope of becoming the local Conservative MP. It is he who complains about the character of people working in his kitchen.

This is austerity England in 1949, embodied by one family in a state of post-traumatic stress. Though its state-of-the- nation observations are over-egged, Ackland’s play deserves to be dusted off.

But in Dunster’s version, other than the family’s nanny (June Watson), there is no one here likeable enough to root for — which, strangely, was also the problem with Dunster’s previous Almeida offering. Called Children’s Children (written by Dunster himself), it was populated by people even nastier than Laura’s jealous, antisemitic sister Kathleen (played by a terrifically embittered Michelle Terry). Here, Kathleen is the play’s most watchable, if not likeable, character by far.

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