Classic, classy drama delivered with real style: Tom Conti’s Before the Party is among the best productions to visit the Devonshire Park Theatre this year.
On a substantial, luxurious set, this Bill Kenwright production is beautifully lit, immaculately dressed and delivered with a cut-glass clarity that needs no radio mics.
Rippling with dry, witty humour, the script has a very English reserve and correctness, often knowingly understated, and the acting style is similar. Every line is enunciated with a love for the language, and even the silences are eloquent.
It is often the silly details that entertain. A door persistently jammed by its wobbly handle opens a trove of ridiculous humour. A manic pursuit of invisible insects with the mozzie-spray is at once hilarious and absurd. These are people so obsessed with the trivia that they never confront the real, human issues.
The two leads are among the most distinguished actors in the land. With endearing, impeccably judged bumble, Tom Conti is a wearily benign head of this mannered household. Wife and socialite Gwen Taylor is more concerned with keeping the osprey feathers in her hat straight than with solving the serious human issues that confront the family.
Conti also directs, as he originally did with Jane Asher in a 1980 production at the Apollo. A director but no dictator, he has needed no more than a nudge on the tiller with this talented cast, who expertly re-create a post-war upper-class English family left stranded by the shifting tides and times.
Older daughters Laura and Kathleen have a tense and often caustic relationship. Kathleen is the play’s least sympathetic character and Elizabeth Payne plays her skilfully and convincingly, while Carol Starks’s Laura is very touching as the still centre of a spinning family world.
Returning from Africa, Laura has been widowed in strange circumstances and is now engaged – too hastily for the family’s liking – to Peter Sandys-Clarke’s affable and charming David.
Completing an accomplished cast, Laoisha O’Callaghan is a smashing down to earth Nanny with more common sense than the lot of them, and youngest daughter Susan – beautifully played down in age by Eleanor Thorn – is the shaft of piercing light, whose questions are all too uncomfortable for the adults to answer.
Ending this week, the production has enjoyed a real Baedeker tour of England’s finest theatre towns – Bath, Windsor, Norwich, Cheltenham, Malvern – and one or two reviewers received it rather sniffily. Not this one; nor the packed Devonshire Park audiences this week, who are absolutely loving it. Yes, it is an odd play, but Rodney Ackland’s adaptation has weathered half a century and still reflects that Somerset Maugham essence: human frailty beneath social veneer.
Just when the audience has settled comfortably into some soft-centred, inconsequential tale of English upper-class manners, the story veers in a new direction that is darker and almost shocking.
The uneasy tension between the comedy and the angst is not a botch, it is intended.
Fine acting, gorgeous staging, and an entertaining play with just enough unsettling edge to keep us alert and wondering. What a treat. Review by Kevin Anderson.