Somerset Maugham’s 1926 short story Before the Party is a beautifully terse, economical sketch, which sets the chilly conventions of English upper middle class life against a torrid colonial environment where sacred boundaries are all too easily transgressed. In adapting it for the stage two decades later, Rodney Ackland over-padded the basic situation and dissipated the coiled-up emotion and contained violence of a family at war, going instead down the route of raucous, crowd-pleasing comedy.
Ackland dispatches Maugham’s whole plot in his first act and then adds another of his own invention, an extended coda that reflects what happens After the Party. As always, what is unspoken, in the original, says a good deal more about English life (in a certain social milieu at least) than can the stodgy exposition and development of a play that was to be a commercial success in the West End in 1949. The sad thrill of expectation left floating in Maugham’s story is brought thudding to earth in Ackland’s overt spelling-out of the consequences of a shocking secret revealed.
If the writing, well-crafted though it is, turns a jewel into something altogether flabbier, the great strength of the Almeida’s revival is a top-notch cast. Michelle Terry is terrific as the ghastly Kathleen, a scowl of disapproval etched indelibly on her face and her wiry frame fit to burst with bad news. She barks at her hapless mother and child-sister and pours torrents of malice and resentment at her beautiful older sibling, while casually revealing a deeply unattractive antisemitism and intense disdain for anything that she regards as bad form, which is just about everything.
Katherine Parkinson is attractive and steely as the widowed Laura, the only almost-normal member of the family, albeit the one with a secret that could blow all their social pretensions to smithereens. She has the fragile strength and complexity of a Rattigan heroine, fearful and eaten up with a victim’s guilt but fully prepared to do what’s necessary to burst out of the stifling confines of her situation. What makes her a good person, whatever she may have been forced into, is her instinct to do the right thing rather than just the done thing. Her silly, pretentious mother on the other hand is a study in social nicety and denial of anything less than lovely in Stella Gonet’s hilarious portrayal.
The men are equally good: Michael Thomas’s blustering would-be MP father who is appalled at his daughter’s selfishness in revealing what she’s done, for the difficult position it puts him in as a pillar of society, and Laura’s new fiancé, David Marshall, a character created by Ackland, played by Alex Price with the right level of nonchalant unconcern until forced into facing the reality of getting mixed up with this horrible lot (at which point his own much more positive secret is revealed). June Watson’s crusty and sage old nanny, another Ackland creation, is beautifully observed and the youngest daughter of the house is played by a series of young actresses, no doubt all as skilled as Polly Dartford was at the performance I saw.
Matthew Dunster adeptly steers the cast through the family’s ups and downs, and the ins and outs of the one-location set. He throws in some quirky features such as front of house staff garbed as bell-boys and amusing, jerky animations projected onto the tabs as intros to the acts.
Ackland’s play is too long and over-works its material but the Almeida’s production thoroughly entertains as it pokes fun at a society that still exists well into the twenty-first century (yes, this world is not dead) but that manages to remain where it should, behind the fortifications of closed drapery, for most of us.