Thursday, June 10, 2010

After the Dance at the National

Thea Sharrock’s revival of Terence Rattigan’s rarely produced second play After the Dance reveals it to be just as human and insightful as his better known work.
Following the huge success of his fun, fizzy comedy French Without Tears, After the Dance was an altogether more grown up play, which was first staged in the summer of 1939. But while it was well received by the critics war was imminent and it failed to find an audience, closing after only a short run. Rattigan himself declined to include it in his collected works and, while there have been regional productions since, the play has rarely been seen on a major London stage.

After the Dance is a portrait of the inter-war generation, of those who were too young to have fought in the First World War and remained stubbornly blinkered to the war to come. David Scott-Fowler is a historian who, it’s implied, has squandered his talent and intellect. He’s supposedly working on a book on Italian history, but his life, and the life of his circle of friends, seems to involve a constant stream of parties and the avoidance of anything that could possibly be considered a bore. David’s drinking has reached such a level that he is in danger of killing himself. His wife of twelve years Joan presents a breezy front to the world and has sculpted herself into what she believes is David’s perfect partner: cool, witty, at ease socially, and reluctant to in push or scold him.

The play is set in the Scott-Fowlers’ Mayfair flat, an expensive but oddly comfortless space. In fact there’s very little pleasure in this gin-fuelled, hedonistic world of theirs; it’s a cruel, hard place where people’s misfortunes are reduced to oft-told anecdotes and there’s a sense of people just going through the motions. The younger generation are, in contrast, presented as far more grounded and serious-minded. This is encapsulated in the character of Peter, David’s younger cousin, who is working as his secretary. The play hinges on a somewhat implausible attraction between David and Peter’s perky fiancée Helen. All of twenty, she convinces him to give up the drink and to start striving for greater academic success. The blossoming love between them strikes the one awkward note in an otherwise rich and moving piece – unfortunately it’s a pivotal one. It’s almost impossible to believe the character of David, as he’s played and written, lusting after bright, bland Helen. Yet lust he does, eventually deciding to leave Joan for the younger girl.

The real emotional weight of the play is carried by Nancy Carroll, as the seemingly resilient Joan who has made an art out of concealing the true depths of her feelings for her husband. For fear of alienating him, for fear of being seen as – that dread word - ‘a bore’, she has downplayed her affections for years. The cracking of her façade when she realises that her suspicions are true and that he intends to leave her is heart-breaking to watch.

The strength of the play, as emphasised by Sharrock’s elegant production, lies in the shading of the characters rather than the broader portrait of a generation in crisis. Benedict Cumberbatch’s modulated performance captures David’s complexities, his odd passivity coupled with his hunger for something more, and there’s a wrenching moment when Joan stands over David as he plays the piano, which is rich with loss and love on both their parts. Adrian Scarborough is also superb as the couple’s old friend, John, who cheerfully leeches off them and yet is clearly deeply fond of them both and is capable of greater reflection and insight than might at first seem apparent. But it’s Carroll’s performance that leaves the most lasting impression, vivacious in her red dress, her smile fixed in place, a drink in her hand, while inside she’s breaking apart.

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