Post-1945 Britain produced millions of babyboomers like me who are still alive and kicking, but not many plays that have survived into the modern repertoire. Rodney Ackland's play first saw the light of day in 1949. So did I. Before The Party might have looked old hat in the 1960s, but in 2013 its distance from the present gives it a fresh appeal, rather like those bits of enamel kitchenware they sell in vintage shops.
The Almeida's excellent revival is directed by Matthew Dunster, author of the seriously underestimated Children's Children, who wisely avoids any attempt to wrench the play out of period; the costumes by Anna Fleischle are perfectly judged, and the theatre gains a proscenium arch and curtain, on which short animated scenes are projected at the start of each act. As in an old-fashioned picture house, the interval is labelled The Intermission and the ushers wear period headgear and jackets.
But period charm only works if the play is good. On this evidence, I wouldn't put Ackland up there with Terence Rattigan. His writing blends comedy and melodrama, and although the plotting is skilful and the characters are well defined, the tone is uneven. There is a tragic dimension to the story of Laura Skinner, the central character, but for most of the play it is hidden behind comic gags such as a malfunctioning doorhandle. Ackland lacks Rattigan's empathy with his characters and his gift for subtext in dialogue.
The tale of Laura is based on a Somerset Maugham short story. Eight months after her husband's death in Africa, she is back in the bosom of her ghastly Surrey stockbroker belt family, supposedly still in mourning but in fact planning marriage to a new man, David Marshall. How her husband died is the nasty little skeleton in the cupboard, and the play explores the way the family is unable to cope with the truth when it emerges. Laura's parents Blanche and Aubrey are narrow-minded prigs, obsessed by their social pretensions and hypocrisies. Laura's unmarried sister Kathleen (Michelle Terry) is vindictive, anti-Semitic and determined to ruin Laura's hopes of happiness. Only Nanny (June Watson) and pigtailed schoolgirl sister Susan, increasingly upset by the dishonesty of the surrounding adults, redress the balance.
Katherine Parkinson, an actress I haven't seen on stage before, gives a performance of real depth as Laura, and young Polly Dartford (sharing the role with two others) is terrific as Susan. Michelle Terry, an actress who excels in roles that require a simple human dimension, seems slightly miscast as the evil golfer Kathleen. The highlight is the big speech that Laura makes to David in the final scene, telling the unvarnished truth about her husband's death, and Parkinson brings this off brilliantly. David (Alex Price), who served in Yugoslavia but threw away his medals, is the most under-written character in the play.
To a modern audience, the casual antisemitism and snobbery of the Home Counties middle classes in 1949 sound like ancient history. Did people really look down their noses at 'commercial travellers' and object to Jews joining their golf clubs? Was there really petrol rationing and was whisky really unobtainable? Was the 'servant problem' quite as dreadful as depicted in this play, or was Ackland making it all up? My source on these matters (also born in 1949) grew up in the Surrey stockbroker belt in the 1950s, and though rationing was over by then, she assures me that the world of the play is an accurate depiction of how things were. The church, the Conservative Association, the golf club, the mindless keeping up of appearances were all much the same in that era of social conformity. The attraction of this play is that it offers a window, only slightly distorted, into a forgotten period of English life.