The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Summer 2010
Terrence Rattigan's 1938 drama is on one level an indictment of the flapper generation of the 1920s as they inch toward middle age - as someone says in the play, 'It's the Bright Young People, only they never were bright and now they're not even young.'
But at the same time it deals, with his customary sympathy, with the subject of all his plays, the dilemma of people facing emotions they're not equipped for, either because they've never had them before or because their culture represses any open feeling or expression of feeling.
At the play's centre is David, 30-something playboy who imagines himself an amateur historian but actually spends his life party-going and party-giving, drinking himself to death while those around him either try not to notice, like his equally trivial wife, or joke away any cares, like his obligatory court-jester friend.
Enter Helen, a pretty young thing who, like all pretty young things in plays, is convinced that her love and guidance can save David and who, like all such figures, brings only disaster.
Rattigan's plot is somewhat formulaic - you ought to be able to spot every turn it takes in advance - but his interest is more in what it feels like for these specific characters to go through this old familiar story.
David of course becomes infatuated with Helen, but discovers that he's not really up to the challenge of freedom, and is as paralysed by choice as he was by inertia. His wife, who had carefully built and sustained the world of surface and triviality that David was most comfortable in, realises there is no room in that construct for the very real love she feels for him, or any way for her to tell him of it.
Even the joking friend, who inevitably is a wise and caring counsellor under his motley, has to face the fact that once he gets serious he can't retreat back behind the guise of not caring.
That's where the drama is, just as it is in The Browning Version or The Deep Blue Sea or Rattigan's other plays - in watching people cross a line into new and frightening emotional territory.
Thea Sharrock's production finds just the right balance between the cool and critical observation of these deeply shallow people and sympathy for their struggles to function outside their comfort zones.
Benedict Cumberbatch never lets us fantasise that David is really capable of change, but makes us see that even this little man's pain is real and worthy of sympathy. Nancy Carroll sensitively takes the wife on a journey from social butterfly to feeling woman disguised as butterfly, and the ever-reliable Adrian Scarborough effortlessly steals all his scenes as the serious-behind-the-joking friend.
To be honest, few of the characters in this play are particularly admirable human beings, and I could understand if you had difficulty caring about their adventures or fates. It was part of Rattigan's genius that he did care, that he recognised that small people's small emotions were big to them.
And if you let him guide you to the same recognition and sympathy, After The Dance can be a quietly but movingly satisfying drama.
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