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Before the Party


Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

“It’s always been traditional for the aristocracy to hobnob with the working classes,” says  ghastly toff Aubrey Skinner in the second half of Rodney Ackland’s 1949 play, adapted from a short story penned in 1926 by W. Somerset Maugham. As real-life little Britain plc seems intent on  taking a lurch back in time to days of ration books and everyday racism both below and above stairs, Skinner’s observation inadvertently predicts the ongoing folly of Brexit that has seen similarly unholy alliances.

Ackland’s play is set entirely in the bedroom of Laura Skinner, the clan’s widowed elder sister who has made a prodigal’s return with new man David in tow. Laura has landed as the family prepare to attend a garden party held for the Surrey society set. While Laura dresses boldly in pink, her mood is as dark as her sister Kathleen’s is brittle. The social niceties the family shrouds themselves in can’t disguise the feeling that an entire world of post-war certainty is about to cave in on the Skinners, and that Laura’s escape is doomed from the start.

It’s as if Chekhov had been rewritten for the English middle classes in Gemma Fairlie’s meticulously turned out production, led by a remarkable Kirsty McDuff as a defiantly blank Laura, who retains a steely stillness throughout the turmoil she kickstarts. With Deirdre Davis’ matriarch Blanche keeping up appearances, it’s left to Fiona Wood’s kid sister Susan to really question the things that matter.

Amid the colonial hangover, there lingers too an increasingly highly-strung patina of snobbery, hypocrisy and a grubby and all too recognisable desperation to protect one’s own no matter what. As Susan’s final gesture pre-dates a punky but reactionary nihilism to come, it reveals a play crying out for the sort of radical reinvention Sarah Phelps has brought to her TV adaptations of Agatha Christie. As it stands, Ackland’s play still can’t help but chime with the times.

The Herald, July 28th 2018

ends

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