Awful families have always made for great theatre. The craven, social-climbing Skinners in W Somerset Maugham’s short story Before the Party are no exception. There’s hardly a character you don’t want to slap.
The problem that any modern revival of Rodney Ackland’s 1949 adaptation faces is fusing its social satire of the upper middle classes with its wildly melodramatic revelations, without overplaying either hand.
Director Ryan McBryde’s handsomely-mounted production unapologetically gives both elements full rein. His cast don’t hold back and the whole thing veers uneasily between tense, emotional showdowns and farcical double-takes. There are tears, tantrums, recriminations and whiskey consumption in abundance.
But at nearly three hours, it never justifies its length. There are a lot of scenes of shouting.
Philip Bretherton heads up the Skinner household as the blustering lawyer with political aspirations and Sherry Baines plays his vain, delusional wife. Katherine Manners plays bitter, judgemental daughter Kathleen to the vindictive hilt while Eleanor Bennett’s precocious pre-teen pouts and flounces.
Bathsheba Piepe, as widowed daughter Laura, returning from West Africa carrying the secret of her husband’s death, benefits from moments of introspection and sincerity. Her unsuitable suitor is given a rakish insouciance by Matthew Romain.
Roberta Kerr’s no-nonsense Nanny, dealing with a kitchen full of Nazis below stairs, comes as welcome relief from the snobbery, hypocrisy, jealousy and malice that fills designer James Turner’s envy-green set.