The late 1940s; a time when ridiculous hypocrisy was more rife in Middle England than stiff upper lips and rakish moustaches, according to Rodney Ackland’s Before The Party.
In a country house introduced by Mark Thomas’ beautifully drawn, cinematic projected preludes we find the Skinners, an upper middle class family disparaging of the black market but eager not to miss out because of rationing and disdainful of those of a class lower than themselves unless they can be of some personal use.
They epitomise the idea that appearance and reputation is everything; truth and reality can be brushed under the pristine, designer carpet.
When their daughter Laura returns from Africa without her husband but with a dark secret, their world of summer parties and tea with the bishop begins to unravel like a poorly sewn cross-stitch.
It doesn’t help the situation that Laura’s sister Kathleen is as eager to bring about her sibling’s downfall as she is to be seen drinking Pimms by a croquet lawn wearing precisely the correct outfit. Michelle Terry brings a cutting visciousness to the part giving the impression that should Kathleen ever try to smile – sneers excepted – her face might revolt and simply refuse to appear happy.
Stella Gonet, as mother Blanche, radiates controlled hysteria, the picture of believed fantasy in the face of hard truth, while Michael Thomas’ patriarch Aubrey feels all at sea, desperately wanting to remain in charge yet eager to leave the unsaid just that.
No wonder Katherine Parkinson’s likeable Laura wants to escape, though even this may have a nasty sting in its tale if the production’s least obvious yet darkest plot point is to be believed. Mistakes, it would suggest, should be learned from.
Despite the laughter and the attitude-shaking revelations, the production ends with a bleak tableau and the overwhelming feeling that everyone in this family and, maybe, class struggles to see further than themselves and it is the smallest voices, the future, that suffers.