AFTER THE DANCE – Lyttleton Theatre (National Theatre)

AFTER THE DANCE - Lyttleton Theatre (National Theatre)How very strange that Terence Rattigan considered his second West End play, After the Dance, a dud and allowed it to languish unrevived during his lifetime. Despite the fact that it was well-reviewed when it opened in June 1939, and was even published, its short run of 60 performances convinced Rattigan that it was a failure. Like an outcast child, he refused to acknowledge its existence by not including it in his two volumes of collected plays, published in 1953.

Happily, the black-sheep of the playwright’s oeuvre has been gloriously rescued from the obscurity it emphatically did not deserve in director Thea Sharrock’s haunting production for the National Theatre. Seventy one years after it was first written, After the Dance emerges as one of its author’s finest plays – up there with The Browning Version, The Winslow Boy and Separate Tables.

It takes place in a sumptuous flat in London belonging to a personable albeit selfish historian called David Scott-Fowler (Benedict Cumberbatch), which he shares with his attractive wife Joan (Nancy Carroll), and, seemingly, a host of hanger’s on, including his young cousin Peter (John Heffernan) and long-time friend John Reid (Adrian Scarborough), who even occupies a room in the flat. Only one thing is wrong: David is in the process of drinking himself to death.

The play is set on the eve of the second world war, with David, Joan and John as part of a hedonistic set once known as the ‘bright young people’ and, whose days and nights, as they reach middle age and beyond, are fuelled by alcohol, gossip and non-stop partying.

The cardinal sin in their lexicon is to be boring. In fact, the word ‘boring’ is the play’s leitmotif against which everything is measured. So much so, that, in the 12 years they’ve been married, Joan cannot bring herself to admit to David that she’s deeply in love with him for fear of boring him.

Believing that their marriage, as successful as it is, has been predicated on companionship rather than deep emotional commitment, David has no compunction in falling requitedly in love with a determindly pushy younger woman called Helen (Faye Castelow), who also happens to be his cousin Peter’s fiancee. Helen manages to persuade David to allow her doctor brother George (Giles Cooper) to examine him, and when told that he has cirrhosis of the liver, she alone persuades him to stop drinking.

As the skies darken with impending war, a black cloud settles over the lives of David and Joan irrevocably changing everything. What initially appears on the surface to be a frivolous, rather typical West End comedy of hi-jinx and infidelity matures, over three acts, into a deeply moving drama involving a ‘lost’, between-the-wars generation who have failed to reach their potential either emotionally or intellectually.

As usual, Rattigan’s structural skills are evident throughout. The seamless way he manages to bring characters on and off stage without any obvious sense of contrivance is remarkable. I do, however, question one instance when, in order to leave Joan and Helen alone on stage, David is despatched to the cellar to bring up some wine. Do flats have wine cellars?

Music is also effectively used – most notably the 20’s hit song Avalon, which bears a marked resemblance to Puccini’s E lucevan le stelle from Tosca. In fact, on the two occasions we hear the first few notes of the Puccini, both are portents of doom – in the first instance Joan’s death mirrors that of Puccini’s heroine, in the second instance, the signs are not good for David.

Out of the large and uniformly excellent cast, Benedict Cumberbatch who makes David’s painful journey of self-discovery and its tragic consequences achingly moving, is superb. So is Adrian Scarborough’s best friend John, a kind of all-knowing, all-seeing Greek choruscum- resident clown, who, by play’s end, takes stock of his own worthless life and sets about attempting to change.

Nancy Carroll’s Joan breaks your heart, and Faye Costelow’s Helen, whose determination is anything but redolent of the ‘lost generation’, is, for all the damage she causes, a positive force, and, you imagine, a survivor.

A terrific set by Hildegard Bechtler puts the finishing gloss on this wonderful, notto- be-missed production.

CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.