“It’s the bright young people over again, only they never were bright and now they’re not even young”
After the Dance is one of Terence Rattigan’s lesser-performed plays; its less-than-stellar original reception due to its unfortunate timing, opening in 1939 as it did, meant it was a relative commercial failure. Rattigan’s personal antipathy to the piece because of this led to the play being excluded from anthologies of his work and it is only really after his death that it has been considerably re-appraised and now considered one of his masterpieces (according to the National Theatre website anyway!).
A cast of 25, under Thea Sharrock’s direction, tell the story of a group of wealthy London socialites, and their hanger-ons, as they set about the business of partying and just generally having a right rollicking good old time. The year is 1938 though, and these are the people who survived the horrors of the Great War, bright young things of the 20s unwilling to let go of the illusions of their youth even as the world tumbles towards another major conflict. At the centre of pile of empties are the Scott-Fowlers, Joan and David the ultimate party couple who got married for kicks and giggles yet find themselves 12 years later still together.
Their Mayfair apartment is populated by their friends only interested in maintaining the partying status quo of gin-soaked debauchery, but some of the younger generation are also present, a nephew is helping David with his fruitless pursuit to be taken seriously as a historian and his meddlesome sweetheart who is intent on rescuing David from himself, regardless of the impact it will have on his marriage.
Rattigan portrays with accuracy the vagaries of human behaviour, specifically the emotional repression, the reserved English nature which crippled true human interaction and lead to catastrophic results (indeed, one could argue it is best exemplified in Chamberlain’s insistence on the appeasement policy.) And in locating his drama in this interwar period, events take on an epic tragic weight, it is hard not to feel something for these people, no matter how obnoxious they get, recovering from one world war only to find themselves headed inexorably towards another.
Nancy Carroll is heartbreakingly good as the brash Joan whose feelings for her husband have matured into a deep unspoken love she is unable to articulate; I’ve never seen Adrian Scarborough funnier than as the ever-present sozzled John, the best friend and permanent house guest who never leaves but possessed of a startling perceptive acuity and the deepest understanding of what it really going on and Benedict Cumberbatch captures the moral apathy of David, in love with the idea of things more than the reality and ultimately the most emotionally repressed of them all.
But there’s excellent work throughout the ensemble, John Heffernan has a wonderfully fresh appeal as the beaverish nephew, Jenny Galloway has great fun as the acerbic Miss Potter, Lachlan Nieboer’s awkward Cyril is a hoot and Pandora Colin’s flapper friend Julia is belly-achingly, scene-stealingly hysterical with a short but memorable appearance in each of the acts.
It’s three hours long but it really does fly by. There could be a little trimmed from the first act I feel, it is generally quite static and once the milieu has been established it does drag on a little but this can easily be tightened up before opening night. Costumes are great, Carroll’s red party dress is spectacular, the unchanging set is sumptuously mounted and the use of supernumaries lends a nice authenticity to the riotous party scene, Leo Staar taking the opportunity to show off his perfectly pert buttocks.
Generally speaking, this was an astonishingly accomplished performance for a first preview of such a large production and I believe it can only get better. The combination of Rattigan’s clarity of storytelling, Thea Sharrock’s unfussy direction and a stellar cast is just magical. Another five star show so soon after All My Sons? Just maybe…!