Reviewed by Helen McWilliams
Written by Rodney Ackland and based upon an original short story by W. Somerset Maugham, ‘Before the Party’ explores a dysfunctional family (the Skinner family) in post-war Britain as they prepare to attend a garden party.
With three daughters living in their rather splendid house (reflected well on stage by way of a magnificent set), Aubrey and Blanche Skinner (played by Tom Conti and Gwen Taylor) have a chaotic home. Blanche’s antics could rival those of Mrs Bennett from ‘Pride and Prejudice’, she’s of a nervous, slightly dippy disposition and wants to make sure her daughters are either mixing with the right people or avoiding becoming the subject of ridicule. The height of her concerns as the story unfolds, is whether her hat looks right. Aubrey appears as though he lives in a state of confusion, he in the legal profession but only deals with ‘clean’ cases. No explanation is offered for the obvious age gap between their youngest daughter (Susan, played by Eleanor Thorn) and the two older daughters (Laura, played by Carol Starks and Kathleen, played by Elizabeth Payne).
To begin with, we are introduced to Laura who is having second thoughts about marrying a Mr David Marshall (Peter Sandys-Clarke) and we come to realise that she has not long been widowed, in circumstances that come to light and alter as the plot builds. Indeed her sister, Kathleen airs her disapproval of the chosen colour of Laura’s party dress, pink, and wears black, herself to make the point. There is a strong sense of sibling rivalry between the two and it is played excellently by Starks and Payne. Their younger sister, Susan skulks about talking of gruesome findings, having watched a pig being slaughtered and taking delight in seeing the discomfort her musings bring.
Mr Marshall is not deemed to be a suitable husband for Laura, and the family are none too pleased with his dealings with the black-market, even though they’re willing participants, themselves when it suits them. The cook is also unsuitable it seem and indeed, a Nazi!
With the word ‘dysfunctional’ applying to the bedroom door-knob as well as the family situation (and with hilarious consequences, thanks to the subtlety of Conti’s performance) this piece almost borders on a farce, but has enough twists, turns and censure to steer it away from that category. The scene having been set in act one makes way for an altogether ‘livelier’ and ‘bouncier’ act two, there was also more notable chemistry between the characters during the second act, too. However, Conti and Taylor give consistently solid performances throughout and make for a sublime duo, it’s a wonder they’ve not performed together, before. They sit comfortably at the helm and are perfectly cast. Conti also directs the play and I feel he has demonstrated a flair for this, even while he is in character, it appears that he never takes his eye off the ‘ball’ and has an exceptional eye for detail.
The tour remains in Malvern until Saturday 3rd October and will move to Cheltenham, Bath and Eastbourne. For more information and to book tickets please follow this link: http://www.kenwright.com/microsite/before-the-party/?id=576#tickets