As I am fascinated by the interwar period and am always intrigued by ‘lost’ novels and plays, this production of After the Dance by Terence Rattigan directed by Thea Sharrock was the most appealing looking item in the National Theatre’s summer brochure for me. Many plays and novels are forgotten for the perfectly legitimate reason that they aren’t very good, but there is also the matter of fashions constantly changing. It also must have been a lot easier for things to fade away in the days before the Internet. After the Dance was Rattigan’s second play after a making his name with a frothy comedy French Without Tears and opened in June 1939 to excellent reviews, but as the political climate grew ever more turbulent, it closed in the middle of August, two weeks before Hitler invaded Poland. Despite the fact that Rattigan’s reputation suffered from the fifties onwards and was perceived by many as hopelessly middle class and narrow in range, it was Rattigan himself who attempted to eliminate this particular play from his oeuvre by refusing to include it in his Collected Works, due to his discomfort with the fact that it was a financial failure (as Michael Darlow argues in the programme notes).
After the Dance tells us what happened next to the ‘Bright Young Things’ immortalised by Noel Coward’s ‘I Went to a Marvellous Party’ and Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies. These are people with no need to work, who thrive on alcohol and gossip about the good old days and live entirely for pleasure. It’s like an extended network connected by one big in-joke. The ultimate put-down in their world to avoid discussing anything serious is ‘Don’t be a bore.’ At the centre of the action are David and Joan Scott-Fowler, who married twelve years ago for the fun of it and are drinking themselves to death with no intention of stopping.
Observing this hedonistic lifestyle with disparagement are David’s earnest much younger cousin Peter and his fiancée Helen, the younger generation who do not drink before dinner and only engage in a few chaste kisses. This is the generation who will fight the war that may or may not be coming. Helen’s crush on her fiancé’s bad boy cousin and her plan to reform him are the catalyst of the tragedy that follows.
Apart from the cliff hanger between Acts II and III, there are few shocks or surprises in this play. It is very much a domestic character piece that builds up slowly. Without wanting to give too much away, I feel that the heart of the tragedy is the fact that the characters are unable to communicate with each other effectively. Joan is unable to tell her husband how much she really loves him in fear of being dismissed as a ‘bore.’ It is a classic example of English emotional repression, but also the obliviousness of people who never really grew up.
Thea Sharrock’s direction is clear and unfussy, letting the words speak for themselves rather than trying to make the piece ‘relevant’ to a contemporary audience. Hildegard Bechtler’s evoking a luxurious Mayfair apartment is spot-on and the performances are universally excellent. As the Scott-Fowlers, Benedict Cumberbatch is both debonair and compellingly tragic and Nancy Carroll is particularly powerful in her silent despair. John Heffernan is perfectly cast as Peter, the most sensible and level-headed character in the piece and newcomer Faye Castlelow is obnoxiously perky (I mean that as a compliment) as Helen, the young woman who thinks she is far more mature and knowing than she really is. Adrian Scarborough delivers one of the finest supporting performances I have ever seen as the Scott-Fowlers’ high maintenance hanger-on, delivering one wisecrack after another and eventually emerges to David’s shock as a voice of reason. There is also a fun cameo from Pandora Colin as Joan’s dreadful over the hill flapper pal Julia and Jenny Galloway milks every nuance she can find in her single scene. Only Nancy Carroll’s rather unflattering wig hits a false note.
After the Dance will never be considered cutting edge. I doubt it was avant-garde in 1939 either, but I suspect that one of the reasons why it failed then was because it hit too close to home. One of the most telling moments is when Joan is confronted with the reality of losing her husband to a younger model and comments, “When you know something is going to happen, it makes it seem further off to joke about it.” I think that this is the kind of sensitively directed, beautifully acted work that the National ought to encourage. The very fact that it was written before anyone knew whether there would be a war or not, let alone the outcome gives it an authenticity and poignancy in a way that a modern writer commenting on the era could never achieve.
After the Dance is running at the National Theatre until August 11th 2010. Tickets can be booked through the National Theatre website.