Terence Rattigan’s “lost” play After
the Dance begins with a butler opening the French windows
while a young man taps away on a typewriter and an older man snoozes
on the sofa under a copy of The Times.
So far, so familiar, audiences must have thought in
the summer of 1939, when the play, Rattigan’s second, opened in the
wake of his smash hit Riviera comedy French Without
But war loomed, the play turned sour and audiences
stayed away: it closed after just 60 performances, despite a
critical huzzah, and has not been seen since, save for Dominic Dromgoole’s well-reviewed touring revival for the Oxford Stage
Company eight years ago.
Thea Sharrock’s NT production is a revelation.
The game is up for the bright young things of the 1920s, stewing in
alcohol and partying on with a suicidal frenzy as Rattigan zooms in
on the London flat of the Scott-Fowlers, where the young man, Peter,
is typing up the latest history book of David while Joan keeps the
cocktail cabinet fully stocked and much visited.
This couple, beautifully played by the effortlessly
smooth Benedict Cumberbatch and the gorgeously febrile Nancy
Carroll, are ignoring all signs of change and decay, David literally
so in the case of his battered liver. Forced to have a medical
examination by Peter’s fiancée Helen (Faye Castelow, bright-eyed
and feisty, resembles a young Sarah Miles), David gives up the drink
then gives up Joan.
The consequences are disastrous but also inevitable,
as another party scene blazes to unexpected and brilliant life, and
the recurring, plangent tones of Al Jolson’s “Avalon” overlap
with the ominous intervals of a Puccini aria from Tosca. The old sofa
boy – Adrian Scarborough is the perfect hanger-on, kept in booze
for his good company – delivers a harsh analysis of the real world
which involves jobs and babies in Balham and is forced to accept work
himself in Manchester with a window-cleaning business.
This shifting of social parameters with an acid
nostalgia for the old world of hedonism and frippery is brilliantly
done in the writing and carried through not only in the performances,
but also in Hildegard Bechtler’s luxurious mansion flat, bathed
in sickly morning light by Mark Henderson.
This is one of the most significant, glorious and
enjoyable productions in the National’s history. It’s like early
Noel Coward mated with mature David Hare. And it’s studded with
lovely cameos from Giles Cooper as a baffled young medic, Pandora
Colin as a “stinking” drunk vulture flying in from Le Touquet,
Nicholas Lumley as the unflappable butler and Jenny Galloway as a
stern, monosyllabic new secretary in the third act.