What better thing to do on an easy Autumn afternoon, than take a seat for a little genteel entertainment in the shape of Rodney Ackland’s ‘Before the Party’.
The play finished its run at Theatre Royal Bath yesterday. Both directed by and starring Tom Conti, the play is an adaptation of a Somerset Maugham short story, and set in post WW2 Britain, specifically, the middle class household of the Skinner family.
It’s a typical structure for a play of that era – a well-to-do family with a nanny, a cook and a large, grand house. The play opened onto Julie Godfrey’s fixed set, that of the bedroom-come-sitting room of one of the Skinner daughters, Laura (played by Carol Starks), recently widowed and returned from Africa to settle back with the family whilst in mourning. The set was beautiful and opulent in design and I gave a little gasp as the lights went up!
The plot’s focus is all around Laura’s return to Blighty after the death of Harold, her alcoholic husband who appeared to have committed suicide. However, an unwelcome confession from Laura subsequently throws the Skinner family into middle-class meltdown. Her parents, Aubrey (played by Tom Conti) and Blanche (the wonderful Gwen Taylor) and sisters Kathleen (Elizabeth Payne) and Susan (Eleanor Thorn)subsequently lurch from one neurotic, anxious fiasco to the next. The script is full of wit and black humour, with sharp, funny dialogue and plenty of opportunity for farce.
Tom Conti’s direction balanced well-paced physicality against excellent comic timing for most of the cast. His own portrayal of Aubrey was of a scathing, tired and cynical husband and father who largely despaired of his wife, daughters and women of the household. Gwen Taylor played Blanche as a bustling, opinionated snob, but a wholly lovable character whose hapless denial to accept the failing of one of her children is also determined to protect her from ruin. Throughout the script there was a continuous reference to Blanche’s obsession with food, which gave way to some magical moments of comedy.
The rest of the cast were similarly excellent; young Eleanor Thorn who played Susan, the Skinner’s youngest daughter, was a joy to watch. There were a couple of occasions where the pace dropped a little, and I did wonder if within some of the longer pauses, some lines had been forgotten but then it became apparent it was a planned pause (or cleverly brought back!) although they made me a bit anxious at the time. The costumes were all excellent, although a friend who has also been to see the play did point out Nanny’s wig which they thought was awful, and on reflection, I agree that it did look a little like it had come from a joke shop.
But overall, this was a highly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud production with a great cast of accomplished actors and a fabulously silly plot, performed in a beautiful theatre. And then a couple of hours afterwards were whiled away in a lovely Bath pub. What more could one ask for?