After the Dance @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Nancy Carroll, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Heffernan, Adrian Scarborough, Faye Castelow, Pandora Colin, Giles Cooper, Jenny Galloway, Daniel Gosling, Juliet Howland, Nicholas Lumley, Laclan Nieboer, Leo Staar, Hannah Stokely, Giles Taylor, Richard Teverson, Charlotte Thornton

directed by
Thea Sharrock
Now hailed by some as Terence Rattigans lost masterpiece, After the Dance receives its first London staging since its failed 1939 premiere in what is a real rediscovery in Thea Sharrocks outstanding production.

Performed just twice in between the play was originally met with a good critical and commercial reception, but as war became inevitable its prescient message of time running out for a doomed way of life became too near the truth for audiences wanting escape.

Rattigan was so disappointed that he omitted the play from his collected works, so it has taken a long time to resurrect it, but we can now appreciate its subtle strength.
After the Dance begins in a similar style to Rattigans first hit French Without Tears, or one of Noel Cowards elegant drawing-room comedies, as we see a group of upper-middle-class socialites recovering from the previous nights hangover. However, though there is plenty of witty dialogue, the mood progressively darkens as the desperate emptiness behind the glittering faade becomes apparent.

Set in the luxurious Mayfair apartment of David Scott-Fowler, a wealthy man who dabbles in writing a history book that even if he ever finishes nobody will want to read, the drama focuses on the contrast between a set of early-middle-aged people who have been partying hard since the 1920s and a more serious younger generation who are concerned about the future.

Having been told that if he doesnt stop drinking he will die very soon, David tries to move away from the bibulous lifestyle of his wife Joan, his permanent house guest John and their hedonistic friends, as he reciprocates the love offered by the nave but assertive Helen, fiance to his earnestly impecunious cousin and secretary Peter. As two decades of peace draw to a close, the party seems about to end with a bang with champagne corks giving way to gun shots.

Rattigans play is a dazzling and ultimately moving portrait of the post-First World War lost generation described in the disillusioned novels of Evelyn Waugh, twenty years on, still stuck in the same groove like the scratchy record of Al Jolsons Avalon, which acts as an elegiac soundtrack. As one of the characters says, Its the bright young people over again, only they were never very bright and now theyre not even young. As always with this master of reticence, the characters tend to repress their emotions under but there are moments when the stiff upper lip gives way in what is an almost Chekhovian study of wasted potential.

Sharrocks well-rounded production makes sure that we are not alienated by the self-centred, aimless lives of the protagonists who seem trapped in a gilded cage, while Hildegard Bechtlers impressive set makes a luxurious backdrop to a gay lifestyle which masks deep psychological scars.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives a satisfyingly complex performance as David, polished self-assurance concealing doubts and anxieties within, but it is Nancy Carrolls Joan who is the unexpected heart of the play as we see her sophisticated nonchalance suddenly crack to reveal an emotional vulnerability. Faye Castelow is also excellent as the well-intentioned but bossy Helen, and John Heffernan is the decent but rather pathetic Peter. As the clownish sponger and perpetually pissed John, Adrian Scarborough is extremely funny, though he later shows a clear-eyed understanding of the others relationships.

The Rattigan revival has been going on for a while now, shedding new light on his familiar plays to reveal their author as much more than a skilful craftsman, but this show goes one step further in reclaiming an unjustly neglected work.

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