Theatre review: Before the Party

Deirdre Davis, Mark Elstob and Niamh Bracken act up a storm alongside the other four cast members.
Deirdre Davis, Mark Elstob and Niamh Bracken act up a storm alongside the other four cast members.
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IN THEATRE, the medium is the message, which is perhaps why mid-20th-century plays like Rodney Ackland’s Before The Party so rarely succeed in having the radical impact the writer seems to have intended.

Pitlochry Festival Theatre ****

Based on a short story by Somerset Maugham, the play is set in the late 1940s in a comfortable upper middle class home in southern England, where the Skinner family are preparing to attend a neighbour’s garden party. The action takes place in the spacious bedroom of the eldest daughter Laura, a young widow just returned from Africa, as the family fight and weep their way through a day of truly shocking revelations and minor domestic disasters.

The play is designed, in effect, to rip the veil of respectability from a way of life most British audiences now view with affectionate nostalgia. Ackland’s script reveals a culture that has it charms, but is also viciously colonial and racist, savagely snobbish, and casually anti-semitic; and Pitlochry associate Gemma Fairlie’s seven-strong cast deliver it with ruthless force, with Deirdre Davis as Mrs Skinner, Irene-Myrtle Forrester as Nanny, and Kirsty McDuff as a steely and contained Laura, all acting up a storm.

In the end, the production and design are just too conventional to escape the comfort zone of traditional drawing room drama, which reinforces in form what it tries to criticise in content. Yet Before The Party remains a fascinating play and a reminder to those in Brexit Britain who would like to turn the clock back that the past was a far murkier and more disturbing place than we often like to recall.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

In repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 11 October