RODNEY Ackland was once described as an English Chekhov. Then like his contemporary, Terence Rattigan, his popularity fell off the cliff as the new wave of realistic or “kitchen sink” plays stole the headlines and the audiences.
Gradually the witty and sharp Ackland has been reinstated in the affections of both theatres and audiences. His wartime drama, The Pink Room, was revived in 1995 at the National Theatre, renamed Absolute Hell, starring Judi Dench, and Before The Party was brought back by Tom Conti in 1980 with Jane Asher in the lead. Conti also directed and starred in a less successful touring production in 2015.
Now this satire on upper middle class attitudes in the years immediately after the war is brought to the stage of Salisbury Playhouse in a beautifully paced production by Ryan McBryde.
Before The Party is based on a short story by Somerset Maugham (another neglected writer probably ripe for revival), about a young widow, Laura Whittingham, who returns to the family home in Surrey after years in Africa, where her husband has died of malaria.
It is the day of the area’s big social occasion and everyone in the Skinner household is excited about the party. Nosy youngest daughter Susan (Eleanor Bennett) wants to wear her yellow dress not the parental choice of navy frock with white trimmings. Mother, Blanche, (Sherry Baines) has an ostrich feather hat to suit her aspirational position as wife of a soon-to-be-adopted Conservative candidate (in what would clearly be a safe seat). Solicitor father, Aubrey, (Philip Bretherton), is complaining about the noise and the problems with the kitchen staff (where the recent war is being replayed by a nazi-sympathising cook and a Jewish maid). Bitter older sister Kathleen (Katherine Manners) is bossing anyone who comes near her, particularly Laura (Bathsheba Piepe). Laura’s friend – and putative fiance – David Marshall, (Matthew Romain), a hero of the Balkan resistance, is putting his foot in it socially and clearly would rather be in the pub. Nanny(Roberta Kerr) is trying to soothe everyone.
The tensions are pinging like electric shocks out into the audience. Why is Laura wearing a pink dress rather than the mourning she should still be in ONLY seven months after her husband’s death and why has she removed his photograph from the mantelpiece?
This is a wickedly funny satire on the kind of snobbish assumption of social position that was caricatured in the John Cleese-Ronnie Barker-Ronnie Corbett sketch of the three Englishmen, the one who looks down on both, the one who looks up to both and the one in the middle who looks “down on him and up to him.”
Two particularly strong features of this production are the pitch-perfect period acting and Philip Bretherton’s blistering performance as Aubrey, with none of the redeeming features which some previous actors have sought in this role. Aubrey Skinner is odious, a snob of the worst kind, arrogant and domineering, vain, bullying his family, while cravenly ingratiating himself with more socially elevated families.
Sherry Baines’ Blanche earns our sympathy as a woman who tries to keep her horrid husband calm, dodge the bitter bullets of her spinster eldest and manage the precocious curiosity of her youngest.
Laura and David are the only characters who have any experience of life in the real world outside the conservative (small c) bubble of Surrey.
Bathsheba Piepe handles the complex role of Laura with touching assurance – you really care for this damaged young woman who is trying to come to terms with the horrors of her life in Africa and the realities of her complacent insular family.
Matthew Romain is similarly believable as David Marshall, perhaps the most elusive character of all – is he a conman, a black marketeer or a nobody commercial traveller? Why can he get cars, petrol and whisky when everyone else is suffering the privations of rationing?
When I last saw Before The Party, I left the theatre dissatisfied, knowing that there was a good play there, spoiled by self-indulgent performances – this Salisbury production shows just how good it is.
Pictured: Bathsheba Piepe and Matthew Romain as Laura and David; Philip Bretherton and Sherry Baines as Aubrey and Blanche Skinner; photographs by Robert Workman.