After the Dance

It’s one of the more delicious ironies of recent theatrical historiography that Terence Rattigan is in a constant process of being newly `discovered’. Thea Sharrock’s NT revival of this `forgotten’ 1939 Rattigan turns out indeed to be a bit of an eye-opener: biting, poignant and shocking in the careless selfishness of some of its protagonists and the damage they inflict thereby.
In that sense, Rattigan has much in common with Coward, with whom he shares that particular characteristic known as the school of repressed emotionalism. Very British, very inter-war and theatrically very effective in the way it creates layers of subterranean subtext.
After the Dance, as the title suggests, conveys, as does Coward’s Private Lives (1930) the sense of thoughtless, nihilistic hedonism also reminiscent of that truly often `forgotten’ playwright, Rodney Ackland whose Absolute Hell (revived in 1987 by Sam Walters and at the National in 1995) revealed an unfashionably dyspeptic view of 1940s British behaviour.
Rattigan’s focus is pre-war and particularly on the idle rich. At the centre of After the Dance, is a glamorous if `weak’ writer, David, possibly a self-critical portrait.
David may be married and straight (unlike Rattigan) but his self-centredness results in suicide (like an ex-lover of Rattigan’s) and much collateral damage to those around him.
Rattigan’s genius is to gradually uncover these skeins of character to show laughter and wit fading variously into despair, a dreadful loss of idealism and interestingly, by the character who seems most camp and wilful, hard-nosed realism. Rattigan seems to know all about the mechanism of need as opposed to love and in his portrayal of Helen – a young woman besotted with David who `wins’ him away from his wife, Joan through dogged, adoring determination – catches a devastating if universal truth.
Sharrock’s production with Benedict Cumberbatch, Nancy Carroll and Adrian Scarborough at its centre, and comparative newcomers Faye Castelow (a dead ringer for Sarah Miles in the pert Helen role) and John Heffernan as David’s idealistic young cousin is sure-footed, its increasing impact reflected in the play’s afterlife. You fear and care about what will befall its most vulnerable in the future.