Before the Party, by Rodney Ackland at the Everyman

Tom Conti

Tom Conti - Credit: Archant

Life can’t neatly be filed under ‘tragedy’ or ‘farce’ – and neither can this funny, enjoyable play, says Katie Jarvis

So (‘Digression’ being my middle name), there I was, interviewing the most elegant, gorgeously-mannered, delightful person probably in the world; one of the most tasteful people in the world – the wonderful, much-missed Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire.

And we were talking about the time her mother, sister and Debo herself took tea with Hitler.

“Then, when we were going to wash up - because we’d had a long journey and we were very dusty in an open car - we found the towels had got ‘AH’ embroidered on them. That somehow brought it back to a perfectly ordinary human being. Heaps of people have things embroidered on their kits, don’t they?” she told me, as we ourselves took tea together in the Mitfords’ home village of Swinbrook.

Yes, I know I’m reviewing Before the Party, Rodney Ackland’s 1922 dramatic adaptation of the original W Somerset Maugham short story. The point I want to make is this. Books and plays (with the exception of Tony Blair’s memoirs, of course) can generally be neatly filed under ‘fact’ or ‘fiction’; ‘comedy’ or ‘tragedy’; grand sweeping issues or homely domestic drama. If you go and see a Harold Lloyd comedy, the great man desperately hanging from the hands of a skyscraper clock, you wouldn’t expect the image suddenly to switch to a nasty patch on the road and the cameraman being sick.

But real life isn’t like that. Real life is when you’re talking to someone you genuinely admire about something that shocks you, yet you still pass the biscuits.

And I guess that’s the thing about Before the Party. Is it a farce? Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Do we care?

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Nope. I didn’t. Firstly, it is very funny. This is a story about rationing and the black market in post-war Britain, where upright men such as Aubrey Skinner (Tom Conti), hoping to stand for Parliament, wouldn’t dream of using illicitly-obtained petrol… unless, of course, it meant walking three miles to a garden party because the coupons had run out. This is a story about what the neighbours think, the importance of titles, door handles coming off in your hand, and people’s throats being slit, possibly by dangerous natives, possibly not.

In brief, we’re in English Country Garden territory, the action set in the bedroom of a large country house, where the family are comforting daughter Laura (Carol Starks), newly returned from deepest Africa. Even though Laura was widowed a mere eight months ago, she is already dressing in pink and welcoming an unsuitable suitor (Peter Sandys-Clarke) into her bedroom, unchaperoned.

And this is where it gets interesting. Because the characters cannot decide whether the most important issue facing them is murder-most-nasty, what the neighbours think, or a doorknob that just won’t stay on.

I think you’ll love this; you’ll certainly appreciate the performances, not a weak cast-member amongst them. And, look. Life isn’t always either drama or comedy. This play – this production, also directed by Mr Conti - works precisely because of the way it intermingles nannies yelling, ‘Bugger!’ with moments of bombshell revelation. Here is a world where people slip comedically on banana skins, only to realise their most beloved relative has choked on the actual banana.

The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573;