Here’s a puzzler to confound, should you happen to find yourself at a party surrounded by theatrically persuaded people: What is the connection between Before the Party and the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
Give up? Well, the latter wouldn’t be quite the same without the formers’s writer. Academy Award nominee, Hitchcock collaborator and BTP playwright Rodney Ackland is also credited with discovering Chitty star Sally Anne Howes. That’s if you believe the Gospel according to St Wiki. We do. Who would think to make that up?
But his 1949 play (based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham) is a bit of a puzzler itself. Part family drama, part melodrama, part satire, part comedy and – in this production – bearing absurdist overtones and (rather redundantly) animation. It’s as if Ackland were delving into the darker recesses of Terrance Rattigan’s psyche and percolating it through a wafer thin filter of Joe Orton.
It is 1949 and Laura Whittingham (Katherine Parkinson – terrific) has returned from Africa, which almost turns out to be the Africa of The Book of Mormon, if we are to believe her family’s description of the place. Eight months ago she was widowed there when her heavy drinking husband was despatched by a mosquito. Perhaps he should have stuck to G and Ts? But was it malaria? Is Laura holding something back from her family, her new fiancee David (Alex Price) and the audience?
Should what actually happened in Africa stay in Africa? Should her family be more concerned about the party they are preparing to attend or food rationing which seem equally pressing worries?
Laura’s family are a generally a fairly ghastly lot, selfish, class-obsessed and even worse, they never knock before entering her bedroom. It’s a wonder they they can get into her room at all as the door knob keeps falling off: a ‘gag’ which (like her family who keep dropping into her room) long outstays its welcome.
Laura’s father (Michael Thomas) is bothered about the doorknob; her mother (Stella Gonet) is concerned about foie gras, her digestion and her hat; her younger sister (whichever of Polly Dartford, Anna Devlin or Emily Lane it was we saw at Monday’s preview was thoroughly convincing) Susan has some rather intelligently pressing questions about God and hell. Her other sister Kathleen (Michelle Terry) is a lady golfer and so magnificently cantankerous it appears her mouth has been put on the wrong way up. Kathleen appears to be holding something back too; possibly euphemistic sensible shoes locked in her euphemistic closet.
But if you don’t feel you want to spend an evening with this fairly dreadful bunch then think again. We were thoroughly absorbed by it all. Director Matthew Dunster has pulled it all together admirably. The casting’s first class with top notch acting across the board(s). Gonet is wonderful and very amusing. She could and should corner the market in distracted, self-absorbed snobbish mothers. There’s also an eminently sensible family nanny played by the eminently watchable family retainer expert June Watson.
Social standing appears more important to this family than the truth. And without giving anything away it’s a credit to the writing and Parkinson’s performance that you leave the Almeida with sympathies turned on their head and positioned in a most unexpected place.
We also admired the fabulous frocks (design Anna Fleischle). And when we say that Andrew drooled over a chair it – for once – is not because he fell asleep. Far from it.
Rattigan’s extended reappraisal may have been long overdue. We think it’s high time for Ackland’s.