After the Dance
by Terence Rattigan
What is better: a lie that brings a smile, or a truth that brings a tear?
So runs the denouement of the 1994 version of the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, and is a weakness of an otherwise charming confection. Applied to Rattigan’s After the Dance, however, it forms a poignant critique of the dilemma facing the society of the day, and the main character, David.
Set in 1938, and first performed the following summer, After the Dance was an immediate critical and popular hit. It is perhaps a token of Rattigan’s perceptiveness that it soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy – as war clouds gathered, audiences shied away from a play which held their partying, drinking and yearning for a time which was past up to the light and revealed its hollow fragility. The play ran for sixty performances, closed three weeks before the outbreak of World War II, and all but disappeared for over fifty years.
Thea Sharrock’s revival of it, currently playing at the National Theatre, has garnered rave reviews, and deserves every one. Though a little slow to get going and for the actors, seemingly, to settle into their roles and cut-glass accents, by Act 2 it had found its feet and was packing a powerful emotional punch.
The chemistry between Benedict Cumberbatch’s David and his two leading ladies, wife Joan and new love Helen (Nancy Carroll and Faye Castelow) was perfectly balanced and utterly believable, though the biggest cheer of the night went to Adrian Scarborough’s John.
A friend from way back and general hanger-on, John is a fool in the full Shakespearian tradition – the ‘court jester’ whose wisdom and perception far outstrip those of his ‘betters’. Aware that his favour with David and Joan rests on his ability to make them laugh, John works hard to keep the mood light. By Act 2, however, it becomes clear that far from being a bumbling buffoon, John sees his friends more clearly than they see themselves.
It falls to John to tell first Helen, then Joan, then David the truths they have striven not to see. But will they act on those tear-bringing truths or retreat once more into the frantic, febrile dance, turning up the music and pouring more gin?
Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? If you want to find out, you’ll just have to go and see it – you won’t regret it.