Before the Party by Rodney Ackland based on the play by W Somerset Maugham
There is something about Tom Conti that audiences love.
Maybe it is that conspiratorial look he can suddenly shoot across the spotlight. Nobody else can strike up that sort of instant rapport.
It is hard to imagine him ever playing a character the audience is supposed to hate.
The character he does play in Rodney Ackland's play Before the Party at Windsor's Theatre Royal is actually an obnoxious old buffoon - snobbish, irritable and narrow minded. But from the moment Conti appeared on Wednesday's opening night - hair all over the place and demanding to know why everyone was shouting, the audience was clearly in love again.
Conti has also directed this revival of a 1949 play, adapted by Rodney Ackland from a Somerset Maugham story.
Ackland is now largely and unfairly forgotten. He wrote some brilliant plays.
But to be honest Before the Party is no 'forgotten classic'.
Its story of upper middle class snobbish Brits shaken by scandal in their midst comes across as a cliched revamp of numerous other Somerset Maugham staples. It is all here - a woman driven to extremes having her dark secret exposed, a neurotic mother, bitter and frustrated spinster sister - even an African background for one of the characters.
But playwright Ackland goes largely for laughs - played for all they are worth by a superb cast.
Conti of course is supreme, whether he is battling with a broken door handle, or sighing with exasperation at all the noise around him. He underplays throughout with that devilish twinkle forever breaking through.
Gwen Taylor - one of Britain's finest actresses - has the impossible task of making the annoying, self-obsessed weeping mother funny rather than irritating. Even she is occasionally defeated in this endeavour. But with the help of a gloriously ridiculous hat and a hilariously messy state of undress later on she wins through and ultimately brings the house down.
Carol Starks is truly delightful as Laura - the wayward daughter of the family. The 1940s fashion in nightwear and underwear suits her gloriously. Her rows with her uptight sister are also great fun - with Elizabeth Payne having a field day as the angry, disruptive sibling.
Unfortunately the play lets everyone down a bit though. One suspects that the 1940s theatrical tradition of two and a half hour plays led Rodney Ackland to overextend himself. Repetition starts to creep in with one row seeming very like another.
The day is ultimately saved by a smart ending that leaves the audience satisfied. The finale actually belongs almost entirely to the one child character in the play - a nice study in mixed up pre-adolescence by Eleanor Thorn.
Director Tom has allowed a couple of swear words to slip into the proceedings that would definitely not have seen the light of day in 1949. Otherwise there is nothing to frighten the horses here - but a fair amount of fun to be had.

Francis Batt