Should Tom Conti’s production of the Somerset Maugham/ Rodney Ackland play Before the Party, in which Conti also stars, be treated as a post-modern skit on the creaking amateur productions of legend, or taken seriously as a professional production of a biting but witty social drama?
Judging by the response of most of the packed Theatre Royal Bath audience on Monday, it was simply a comedy starring a beloved actor – and they loved it.
The splendid set, designed by Julie Godfrey, frames the action in widowed daughter Laura’s bedroom of a large county house. Another plus is that the actors never stray from that strained and perfect diction of what was BBC English (unlike some of their Downton “relatives”).
It is one of the most unbalanced plays I have ever seen on the professional stage, over 50 years of theatregoing.
Apparently, Tom Conti, still remembered as the grinning, scarf-wearing student in The Glittering Prizes, directed the first revival of the play, very successfully, in 1980 with Jane Asher, Michael Gough and Phyllis Calvert.
Thirty five years on he has cast himself in the role of the barrister hopeful of being selected as an MP. There is an inherent danger in directing a play in which one is a central character, and it’s mostly about not being able to stand back and look at what is happening.
Judging by the rave reviews of an Almeida revival of the play two years ago, I can only assume that here Mr Conti did not decide whether this was a comedy or a satire, and so his cast was caught on the horns of a dilemma.
There are some very funny lines, many of them beautifully delivered by Gwen Taylor as the mother. Elizabeth Payne plays the sort of sanctimoniously jealous sister we all dread, with Carol Starks as the widow with a secret.
And next week, for something completely different, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.