“You’re not in West Africa now, you’re in Luffingham”
There’s a triumphant quality to almost every aspect of Before the Party. Anna Fleischle’s beautifully observed design builds in a proscenium arch to the Almeida – the apposite prism through which to view this slice of post-war British life written by Rodney Ackland in 1949 from a short story by Somerset Maugham. And the cheeky addition of animated video work from Mark Thomas suggests a deceptive sitcomesque lightness as the curtain rises on the aspirational upper-middle-class Skinner family as they fuss and squabble whilst preparing for a round of social engagements. But beneath this brittle comic surface lie tragic depths and Matthew Dunster teases them out with pinpoint precision in a superb production and aided by one of the best ensembles in London.
The war may be over and though rationing remains in full force, the rigidity of English society still persists with decorum to be observed at all times. When the Skinners’ eldest daughter Laura – a career-best performance from Katherine Parkinson – returns from Africa a widow and burdened with secrets aplenty, the uneasy equilibrium of the household is threatened as they try to maintain the façade of respectability. Parkinson excavates near-Chekhovian profundity in Laura, an aching sadness underpinned by a morality lacking elsewhere in the family and she captures this blend of fragility and strength with infinite grace and poise – her silences almost unbearable to watch.
Countering this is Michelle Terry’s monstrous Kathleen, the staunch defender of the family’s propriety and more than just a little jealous and resentful of her older sister. There’s sharp humour to be found in her verbal barbs and petty actions but this soon deepens into something more corrosive, more ugly as her true prejudices are laid bare and her enmity for Laura explored in some viciously affecting sparring between Terry and Parkinson, the former inescapably caught in spinsterish societal severity, the latter espying a liberation soon to come.
Around this titanic duel are performances of great note too. Stella Gonet as fluttering mother Blanche is hilarious in her endless chatter; Michael Thomas nails the awkward ambition of aspiring politician Aubrey; June Watson’s all-seeing housekeeper a creature of genuine emotion; and Polly Dartford as youngest sibling of the house Susan (one of three young actresses sharing the role) is a picture of stifled youthful exuberance. Alex Price as Laura’s new fiancé David has a ruffled charm which correctly identifies him as a route out of this world of pretension and whilst the show may overstay its welcome just a little, its aspersions towards our enduring obsession with class hitting home just as sharply today as it ever did. Glorious stuff.