Independent Theatre
Goodwood Institute Theatre
Until 29 Apr 2017

Review by Anthony Vawser

It’s a delight as well as a thrill to experience a play that races along but sweeps you up and carries you all the way with it. “Before the Party” is a wonderfully satisfying blend of frantic farce and drawing-room comedy-of-manners.

Detailed characterisation, deliciously played, is the soul of this refreshing production – rather than the typical outrageous convolutions of plot that a farce so often foists on its audience. The laughter grows out of recognisable human behaviour – slightly exaggerated – rather than the contrived, alien silliness that too many comedies traffic in.

From the opening line, director Rob Croser makes this a fast-paced show, lightly and brightly performed. Madeleine Herd and Will Cox are radiantly likeable as young betrothed couple Laura Whittingham (nee Skinner) and David Marshall; Herd’s performance in particular is a showcase role in which she shines brighter and grows ever more impressively assured as the play progresses, while Cox proves himself as astute a performer in this genre as in such dissimilar Independent triumphs as “Hamlet” or “Bracken Moor”.

Laura Antoniazzi makes an elegantly malevolent antagonist in the role of Kathleen Skinner, knowing exactly how to deliver an important line at the precise pitch of perfect obsequiousness. Her surges of angry/anxious emotion are superbly balanced between a possible aching sincerity and an equally plausible product of a character who loves to ‘put on a show’ when given the chance. Watching sisters Herd and Antoniazzi engage each other on the same combative level, while striving to stay even slightly civilised in the process, is supremely entertaining to watch.

As high-strung mother Blanche Skinner, Bronwyn Ruciak once again proves herself a master of emotional extravagance, shown to particularly delightful effect in this comedic setting, while David Roach overcomes the curious awkwardness of his first appearance to make a solid impression as the put-upon Aubrey Skinner. Myra Waddell is gently amusing as Nanny, a nicely underplayed counterpoint to the mania that surrounds her.

Jenna Bezuidenhout’s little sister Susan Skinner inspires favourable comparisons with delightful Dinah in “The Philadelphia Story”; though decidedly British by comparison, this girl still shows impressive steely resolve in standing up to the forces of bitter big-sister Kathleen, as well as commendable power in her more emotionally vulnerable moments. Susan and Nanny combine quite wonderfully in a number of scenes to reflect both the elder and younger perspectives on a certain situation.

Themes of sibling rivalry, matrimonial secrets, and personal responsibility are all traversed here, as playwright Rodney Ackland, inspired by a Somerset Maugham short story, spins an intelligent web out of a bunch of intriguing individuals negotiating personal passions and colourful histories. The emotional temperature/terrain of this script is very smartly structured by Ackland and skilfully modulated by Croser. Melodramatic conventions are referenced knowingly, with some very funny results indeed; attitudes toward psychiatry, suicide, and grief also provide some surprisingly solid sources of humour.

A number of plot elements and story twists here are so entertainingly ‘old-school’ that they almost play as ‘edgy’ to an audience in 2017; certainly some of the descriptive language is discomfiting at times. In general, the comedy here has – with the passage of time – attained an additional level of spiky intrigue, due to the combination of era-specific concerns that play like relics (but fascinating ones) and the realisation that the prejudices and fears displayed at certain moments may not be as thoroughly far behind us as we’d wish to think.

With the aid of nicely-judged set dressing and costuming, the post-WWI period is persuasively conveyed in a visual sense; Herd in particular is resplendently dressed, as dazzling as an era-appropriate Taylor Swift in ‘formal mode’. Also deserving of praise are the subtly deployed and skilfully arranged lighting cues by Bob Weatherly.

One hopes that the scarily effective poster image (bloody butcher knife bisecting a bow-tied-and-cherried cupcake) doesn’t put any punters off, nor give them the idea that this is either a traditional murder-mystery-thriller or a gruesome ‘slasher’ tale. This particular “Party” is ideal fun for the whole family.