By Fanny Charles
Rodney Ackland, once known as the English Chekhov, is now being enjoyed by new audiences after years of neglect and the latest revival, of Before the Party, is a triumph for Salisbury Playhouse.
Like his contemporary Terence Rattigan, Ackland’s popularity waned with the rise of realistic and kitchen sink drama in the 1950s, but in recent years his wartime drama, The Pink Room, and Before The Party, a sharp satire on upper middle class attitudes, have both been successfully staged.
Based on a short story by Somerset Maugham (another neglected writer probably ripe for revival), Before the Party centres on the plight of a young widow, Laura Whittingham (Bathsheba Piepe), who has returned to the family home in Surrey after years in Africa, where her husband died of malaria. It is the late 1940s and rationing is affecting even the most affluent and socially aspirational households.
Everyone in the Skinner household is excited about the big social event of the summer, dressed in their finery and bemoaning the impact of petrol and food rationing.
There is the precocious and nosy youngest daughter Susan (Eleanor Bennett), bitter unmarried older sister Kathleen (Katherine Manners), mother, Blanche, (Sherry Baines), with a nervily dodgy digestive system and an oversized ostrich feather hat, and pompous solicitor father, Aubrey, (Philip Bretherton), who expects to be adopted shortly as the prospective Conservative candidate for this safe seat.
Below stairs there are warring kitchen staff (a nazi-sympathising cook and a Jewish maid) while 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.
But 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?
Ryan McBride’s beautifully paced production is pitch-perfect on period voices and acting styles. Philip Bretherton’s blistering performance as Aubrey makes the most (worst) of this arrogant, snobbish bully. And Sherry Baines’ Blanche earns our sympathy as she tries to keep her dysfunctional family together and calm her explosive and unpleasant husband.
Bathsheba Piepe makes us care for the damaged Laura, trying to come to terms with the horrors of her life in Africa and the realities of her complacent insular family. And Matthew Romain is convincing as Marshall, a slightly mysterious character who may be a black marketeer on the make or the tower of strength that Laura needs.