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Review Round-up: High Praise for Rattigan's Dance

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Terence Rattigan's "long-lost" 1939 drawing room drama After the Dance has been revived at the National Theatre, with Thea Sharrock directing a cast led by Nancy Carroll, Benedict Cumberbatch, Adrian Scarborough, John Heffernan and Faye Castelow.

As the world races towards catastrophe, a crowd of Mayfair socialites party their way to oblivion. At its centre is David (Cumberbatch), who idles away his sober moments researching a futile book until the beautiful Helen (Castelow) decides to save him, shattering his marriage and learning too late the depth of both David’s indolence and his wife’s undeclared love. But with finances about to crash and humanity on the brink of global conflict, the drink keeps flowing and the revellers dance on.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - “Thea Sharrock’s NT production is a revelation … 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 … (The) 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.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Terence Rattigan's supposedly 'lost' play was actually shown on BBC TV in 1994 and revived by Oxford Stage Company in 2002. But both are eclipsed by Thea Sharrock's superb production, which captures not only Rattigan's ability to blend the psychological and the social but also his extraordinary breadth of sympathy … The marvel of Sharrock's production, however, lies in its microscopic detail: there's a moment when Nancy Carroll as David's wife, shattered by the news he plans to leave her, simply sits rock still – thereby conveying a wealth of sadness … Every few years the British theatre rediscovers Rattigan: this excellent production reminds us that we should simply accept him as one of the supreme dramatists of the 20th century.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (five stars) – “This is a great and wonderful revelation … Neglected plays by major writers are usually neglected for the very good reason that they aren’t much good, but in Thea Sharrock’s superb production at the National Theatre the drama emerges as a piece that can stand comparison with Rattigan’s greatest works, such as The Deep Blue Sea and The Browning Version … The performances are first rate. Nancy Carroll is almost unbearably moving as the apparently jolly and resilient Joan Scott-Fowler who has never quite dared to reveal to her husband just how much she loves him. Her eerily quiet sobs and shrieks when she learns he is trading her in for a younger model provide the play’s emotional heart … Benedict Cumberbatch is compelling as the alcoholic husband who sees a chance of a better life but realises he cannot bring it to fruition. One leaves the theatre convinced that a neglected classic has finally been honoured.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (five stars) – “This is the National Theatre at its best: an obscure yet excellent English play, directed with tact and vision, and stunningly performed … Rattigan’s characters are rich Londoners whose lives are empty and bibulous. Gin is their oxygen, and in Hildegard Bechtler’s gorgeous design the drinks tray is focal … Adrian Scarborough has perhaps never been better than he is as John, the couple’s long-term guest … There’s superb work, too, from Faye Castelow as Helen, the callow young woman who wants to lift David out of his apathy; from John Heffernan as her harried, soulful boyfriend; and from Pandora Colin, hilarious as a ghastly flapper who’s friends with Joan. But the star turns come from Nancy Carroll and Benedict Cumberbatch. Initially cool and crisp, Carroll becomes heart-rendingly brilliant as Joan’s world disintegrates. And while Cumberbatch’s physical pose is remarkable, it’s his voice that is the real marvel: dense as treacle, but unerringly precise.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (five stars) – “Britain's recent elite, so relentlessly extravagant and shallow and drunken, may watch Terence Rattigan's 1939 play After the Dance with rising discomfort. It paints the ruinousness of moral neglect, the selfishness of sybarites. Here is a play to chill Blair and his babyboomers … Thea Sharrock's superb production of this neglected Rattigan is luxuriantly staged. Everything happens in the drawing room of David Scott-Fowler's London flat. High ceilings, chunky doors, shimmering manservant. All deliciously caught … On a narrow level this play describes the ravages of drink and the unease fellow drunks feel when one of their number takes up abstinence. It is, however, about the graver addiction of weaklings to the drug of self-indulgence. They are hooked on frivolity. Belief in anything is something to be wafted aside with a well-refreshed palm … Amid all this is the baffled figure of David's younger cousin Peter (John Heffernan), who learns how destructive these attitudes are. Playwright Rattigan surely saw a lot of himself in Peter. Adrian Scarborough, Pandora Colin and Jenny Galloway are but some of the actors contributing fine cameos to a richly redeeming night.”
  • Libby Purves in The Times (four stars) – “A Nancy Mitford character once said, wistfully, that their interwar generation would be forgotten, an irrelevance. She was wrong: the Twenties and Thirties still fascinate … Here, like flies in amber, that generation stay trapped, seen through Rattigan’s prism of naturalistic anguished comedy and redemption. At first, with drawing-room elegance and wisecracks from a wonderful John Reid (Adrian Scarborough) it conjures echoes of Coward: except that with Rattigan, you always know that what is brittle will eventually crack … It is engaging, brilliantly done, funny at times, but frankly a harsh piece of emotional archaeology. I can see why after its 1939 triumph Rattigan kept it back. You can offer such a pitiless mirror to a society only while it is still reasonably smug and secure. For us in 2010, there is enough human truth to hold us. But their denied emotions, their brittle pretence, feel like a message from another planet. We have moved on. I hope.”
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