Before the Party

Keith Pattison
Almeida Theatre , Barnsbury Friday May 3 2013 19:30

Cocktails, smart dresses and stiff-upper-lipped hypocrisy are the order of the day in Rodney Ackland’s scathing comedy about the suburban classes of the late 1940s. Adapted from a short story by W Somerset Maugham, it shows a world in which 'Who’s Who' is the Bible, and God is almost certainly a member of the Conservative Party.

There’s always a danger when dramatising the cut-glass accents and attitudes of post-war England of slipping into caricature, and Matthew Dunster’s production does not entirely escape this. The Skinner family is confronted with a dilemma when their daughter Laura returns as a widow from Africa’s Golden Coast, but refuses to wear mourning at a party eight months after her husband’s death.

Katherine Parkinson’s performance as Laura is a model of quietly modulated agony – although her dilemma quickly takes on comic aspects, she is the one member of the cast who delivers the lines as if she had lived them. Through the course of the play she must deal with an impatient fiancé, a mother whose moral centre is in her stomach, a father with Tory ambitions, and a vindictively jealous sister. But though the laughs are frequent, the targets often feel superficial.

The frustration is that this could be an extremely good evening – some of the one liners would have made Noël Coward proud, and the cast, not least Michelle Terry as the vindictive Kathleen, are very good. But the production’s momentum feels misjudged from the off, and this combined with its over-pronounced self-consciousness leaves you feeling – rather like its characters – as if an opportunity has been missed. Rachel Halliburton

Venue name: Almeida Theatre
Address: Almeida St
N1 1TA
Transport: Rail/Tube: Highbury & Islington; Rail: Essex Road; Tube: Angel
Price: £8-£32