A few years before his death, Noel Coward remarked that the two greatest living playwrights in England were 'myself and Terence Rattigan'. The latter is currently in vogue with recent stage and film revivals of The Browning Version and The Winslow Boy, while English Touring Theatre now tackles his much less frequently performed After the Dance.
Harder and more brittle than his quintessential drawing room dramas, the play was virtually disowned by the author after its disappointing West End run in 1939 and only rediscovered a decade ago. The lack of its initial commercial success does not, on any view, justify its subsequent neglect. This is an elegant and well-structured piece that works superbly well on a number of levels - and goes a long way towards supporting Coward's assertion.
After the Dance is a generational drama played out just before the onset of the Second World War. Fifteen years on, a group of erstwhile Bright Young Things are still trying to live up to their name in hedonistic style, while their juniors are taking things altogether more seriously in the apocalyptic shadow of another Great War.
To the flip and financially comfortable David and Joan, married for 12 years, the worst sin imaginable is to be 'boring'. Drink, dope and parties mask the empty lives they and their friends lead. Joan has never told David that she loves him, fearing to be thought a bore; David has his own insecurities and, seeking love, drowns them in gin. Their friend John, an impoverished bourgeois accustomed to a high life he can't afford, lives with them, acting as a sort of sympathetic court jester. When David falls in love with the 20-year-old and appallingly self-righteous Helen Banner (a genuine bore), the relationship leads to a second-act denouement that's as shocking as it is surprising.
All this sounds terribly po-faced, but it isn't. Rattigan can write, with wit and verve, genuine stage conversation in which the characters actually talk to, rather than at, each other. As comedy segues into tragedy, it becomes clear that for all their foibles - or perhaps because of them - the aged BYTs are more human than the alternative.
After the Dance is a genuine find, and in Dominic Dromgoole's production, it is beautifully performed by Michael Siberry as the world-weary David, the wonderful Catherine Russell as Joan and Bob Barrett as John. Anna Hope as Helen is so atrociously priggish that you can't help but hate her (appropriately so). A large supporting ensemble also plays to perfection.
- Stephen Gilchrist (reviewed at Salisbury's Playhouse)