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Before the Party

A lovely revival of Rodney Ackland's bitingly funny post-war play

A comedy of manners with a real sting in its tail hits the main stage of Salisbury Playhouse this May. Based on a short story by W Somerset Maugham, Before the Party is a satirical portrayal of the upper middle classes adjusting to post-war life. Or is it? It is bitingly funny but stiff at times, a chic period romp combined with horrific family revelations – is it a comedy or tragedy? You decide.

Following daughter Laura’s return from Africa, widowed but with a gentleman friend in tow, the Skinner family prepares for their latest social gathering. However, when it turns out that her first husband died in Africa under mysterious circumstances, Laura’s revelations could ruin the party and the Skinner household’s climb to social success.

This rare, masterful revival of Ackland’s play brings a sharp, satirical tale into the realm of ration-book Britain, with all its cravings for real farm butter and three – no, better just get two – cans of petrol. Set entirely in Laura’s bedroom/sitting room, the characters verge on being two-dimensional – domineering and snootish mother Blanche, father Aubrey desperate to impress the Conservative committee come Monday morning and bristling with indignation when anything, or anyone, threatens to jeopardise this, terrifically twisted and riddled-with-jealousy unmarried sister Katherine. There’s even a loving but foot-no-nonsense nanny – but are pulled back into fleshy three-dimension by the wit of the language and the surprising content of the play. What begins as an ordinary, post-war comedy soon turns into a seething vat of murder, hypocrisy, prejudice and lies, damned lies and secrets. Throw in a behind-the-scenes battle with the family’s household staff and a facist-sympathising cook locking a maid in the cupboard, and you’re set for a barrel (sort of) of laughs.

There are some side-splitting one-liners (even I laughed, and I’m not known for having a chuckle at a ‘straight’ play), but biggest thumbs up must go to the designer James Turner, whose immaculate design sets the play firmly in 1940s Surrey while bringing in a definite and dark sense of colonial Africa. Throw in some lovely performances and a well-stocked bar (vital for a theatre trip, I say) and you’re made for a fab evening. Makes a difference from The Gruffalo and Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom, which I’m used to sitting through. All in all, loved it!

Before the Party is on at the Salisbury Playhouse until Sat 27  May. Tickets 

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