After the Dance
Admin | 10 Apr 2019 11:03am
Photo: Clara Euler
Although unappreciated when it was first staged in 1939, we have the National Theatre to thank for rediscovering, in 2010, Rattigan’s initially unpublished masterpiece. After the Dance has all the psychological insight and poignancy of his more lauded plays (e.g. The Deep Blue Sea and The Browning Version). There’s a symmetry to it which, in the concluding moments, is shattering.
Coming hard on the heels of Rattigan’s first success, the light-hearted French Without Tears, and with WW2 on their doorstep, audiences could be forgiven shunning a work that took a bleak look at members of the frivolous, hard-drinking social set with too much money and too little to do. Remnants of the previous decade and once bright things they are now, alas, no longer young.
From the flippant banter of the opening, one could be forgiven for thinking this is a light, Coward-style comedy. It’s also the point at which Jon Foster’s otherwise well-paced and assured production is at its weakest, the cast straining a little too hard to capture the theatrical mannerisms of a bygone age. Too much shrieking and wrist-flapping encourages gabbling and is counter-productive. Mercifully, once we discover one of the principal characters is on the downward slope with cirrhosis of the liver, the dialogue and delivery begins to sober up and we see that, for at least one person, the artificiality is a façade.
David and Joan had a light-hearted affair twelve years ago and decided to marry on a whim. David, a charming but weak man and an inadequate writer, cares for his wife in his own way but has taken what they have for granted. As can happen in ‘convenience’ relationships, as the years went by, she fell in love with her husband but, presumably terrified of destroying the balance of their relationship, maintained it by hiding the extent of her own feelings beneath bright and brittle chatter. Until a month ago, it worked. Then David met a serious, managing young woman, Helen, many years his junior with a somewhat naïve though conscientious doctor in tow, who made a dead set at him. Joan’s world starts to crumble as the tendresse turns serious and she watches her husband succumb to the younger woman’s determination. It’s Ibsen’s issue of the life lie that can destroy everyone in its path.
Dom Ward and Liz Flint are beautifully matched as David and Joan and their scenes together finely tuned and nuanced. Liz Flint is a natural for stylish comedy, especially when it has ironic edge – aided by a stunning wardrobe – and has some fine moments in which she silently expresses her true emotions. Her final exit is very moving. Dom Ward has the harder job in revealing the hidden pain in what could easily become an unsympathetic character. He’s assisted by fine writing of course, but nonetheless brings considerable skill in revealing the complex layers of David’s personality, winning our respect when he tries to put things right for the people remaining whom his behaviour has also damaged. Tragically he lacks the strength of character to save himself.
Hannah Brooks also does well as Helen – another difficult part. I was reminded of Joanna Murray-Smith’s more recent play Honour, where a younger woman also destroys the marriage of a much older man. Sorry, duckie, the audience is always going to side with the ill-treated wife! There’s an excellent scene where we watch her trying to control David and can see how that pairing will never work. I do, however, take issue with some of Rattigan’s timescales, especially the line that tells us Helen and David have only known each other for only a month. Certainly, one can fall heavily in love in a few days, but to reach the point where divorce is on the agenda so quickly? Mm. Well that happened in Honour too.
It takes David’s long-standing but parasitic friend John, played by the excellent Chris de Pury, to show him the error of his ways. John, who is secretly in love with Joan himself and arguably the cleverest character in the piece, spends much of it lolling on a sofa, spouting wittily as both the clown of the piece and, to some extent, chorus. John sees what is happening and is not afraid to speak his mind. It’s a gift of a role which de Pury seizes and makes his own. The well handled duologue between the two men in the final scene is particularly effective.
James Cross makes the earnest Peter just the right side of boring. And there are lively cameos from the supporting cast, notably Sophie King as Moya.
The piece is played against Peter Foster’s spacious and elegant art-deco set. If I was being picky, I’d mention several visual anachronisms in the costume and props departments – and the men’s hair could look more period. Certainly, everyone would have worn either evening or fancy dress at a party in the late 30s. And I spotted a Penguin paperback with a cover dating from the late 50s – quelle horreur! But no matter.
Overall, this is an entertaining and thought-provoking revival that does justice to Rattigan’s neglected work.
Photo: Clara Euler