Susan Skinner, small daughter of the socially ambitious Skinner family, has seen a film she shouldn’t and her mother shrieks, “you didn’t go in the cheap seats!”. This charming – yet at times teetering onto the tragic – post-war comedy derives much of its laughs from sending up the pomposities of the class-obsessed. All taking place in the pink boudoir of newly widowed Laura, serious disaster threatens to puncture their perfect lives.
With household characters coming and going; the stout Nanny (a tough but loveable June Watson), the precociously sagacious Susan (Polly Dartford) and the delightfully bitter spinster sister (Michelle Terry) determined to drop her more glamorous sister in it, Before the Party resembles one of the best loved sitcoms. Indeed, there’s a farcical element, with a doorknob that keeps on falling off and fiancée David (Alex Price), whose earnest efforts to impress are thwarted by him inadvertently damaging his in-law’s property. But this is just one of its shades.
If it was just a 1940s style sitcom it wouldn’t have left the audience spellbound. The 1949 play has much of the hypnotic elegance and tragedy that anyone who has watched a black and white Katharine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart movie will recognise as true of the era. Indeed its author, Rodney Ackland wrote for cinema, including Hitchcock’s Number Seventeen. The actors here also take credit for its vintage charm. Katherine Parkinson as Laura, who smoulders and glides her way out of unimaginably tight corners, is hardly distinguishable from those long gone Hollywood icons. She has a natural allure that is enough without the fantastic 1940s costumes, bespoke designed for the run by Anna Fleischle.
And like those old films which always seemed to show its characters eyes brim full and shining with joy or sadness, you’ll probably find yourself looking at the stage with much the same mixtures of reaction. Not even the lady who couldn’t turn her phone off, to the visible dread of her husband, detracted from this entrancing night.
Before the Party runs until 11 May at the Almeida Theatre. Tickets £8-£32. Londonist saw the performance courtesy of Premier PR.