The National Theatre’s After The Dance offers audiences a stylish and captivating glimpse into the glittering world of bright young things. However, Terence Rattigan shows that his characters are no longer young and were never bright.
Set in the late 1930s, After The Dance portrays that tempestuous age where England’s high society was desperately hanging on to the last threads of decadence, painfully – if silently – aware that with the inevitable Second World War just around the corner, their lives of parties, gossip and scandal were about to be extinguished.
In such a time, the lives of married couple David and Joan already seem outdated and extravagant to the younger generation. They still believe themselves to be youthful and able to drink whisky until their livers hurt, without consequence. But to the virginal couple Peter – David’s assistant – and Helen, their lives of parties and sleeping until noon seem wasteful and obscene.
Set in the vast living room of David and Joan’s London flat, with floor to ceiling silk curtains, a butler on call and the all-important heavily stocked bar, scratch beneath the luxurious surface and all is not what it seems. Joan, vivacious and flippant, is terrified of being discovered to be so “drearily” in love with her husband, worried that he will instantly tire of her if he sees her like all the other girls pawing over him. One such girl, Helen, is determined to change the slovenly, stubborn David, and the results have an earth-shattering effect on the group.
With an assortment of colourful characters littering David and Joan’s apartment, their world is a constant stream of fake dialogue. Everything is “heaven” or “torture”, their poison is referred to as “tingy, whingy, drinky poos”, and any number of “darlings”, “duckies” or “angel face” visitors cross into their apartment, where the present remains the good old days, and the past is talked about as if it happened that morning.
Played touchingly by Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll – both of whose stature and clipped vowels are perfectly designed for period dramas – the married couple reveal the painful truth. As long as they and their vapid friends remain frightened to reveal their true selves for fear they will be seen as boring, the danger lies in that their life-and-soul-of-the-party masks may one day become not enough for one another.
Stealing the show, their lazy houseguest John, played with hilarious panache by Adrian Scarborough, at once becomes the wise-cracking teenage son they never had – even joking about who would take custody if they were to divorce – and the voice of reason. Seeing through each character’s façade to reveal their true ugly self, John recognises David’s stupidity, Helen’s cruel, heartless naivety and Joan’s desperate need for her husband. As always, the tragedy lies in their inability to open their eyes and realise it for themselves.
Trapped in fear and the comfort of the past, After The Dance shows the danger of running away from what you truly desire, or more terrifyingly, need.