July 21, 2010

After the Dance, National Theatre

5 stars

It’s a rare and beautiful thing to come across a production as beautifully realised as Thea Sharrock’s After the Dance, now in its final leg at the National. A lesson both in acting and direction, this is a humbling example of the extraordinary power that theatre, when it’s done well, can have.

Terrence Rattigan’s play looks at the dangers of not being true to oneself and not saying all that we should for the sake of what others may think and for fear of being perceived as a “bore” – a word that preoccupies all of the play’s characters. “He’s gone dreary on us”, complains the frivolous Julia Browne (Pandora Colin) as she laments an old friend setting up his own window cleaning business in Manchester. These condemnatory characters live an idle, supercilious existence of gossip and banter, fuelled by an excess of narcotics.

David Scott-Fowler is the greatest advocate of this both jovial and debauched lifestyle, and is here played by an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, who evolves from a hedonistic, selfish man being waited on, drinking heavily and enjoying a fun but detached existence from his wife to, at the end, a glazed and deeply thoughtful “bore”, contemplating seriously what it’s like to really need someone. The still young Cumberbatch gives his character a convincing middle-age gravitas, which invites the affections of the sweetly scheming twenty year-old Helen (a bright-eyed performance by Faye Castelow), and the silent, ashamed love of the vivacious socialite that is his wife, Joan (a fantastically sexy and brave-faced performance by Nancy Carroll).

When Helen and David suddenly announce their passionate love and imminent plans to marry, Helen’s fiancé and cousin to David, Peter (a poignantly cheerful and good-hearted John Heffernan) quietly crumples and Joan breaks down in a rare moment of weakness and honest emotion. She has loved her husband all along, but even after twelve years of marriage has never felt able to tell him so for fear of seeming a bore. It is this tragic and destructive lack of communication that makes this play such a sorry one.

In a production where every casting is absolutely right and each directorial decision is wholly appropriate, there is one performance which must be singled out as one of the best I’ve seen. Adrian Scarborough plays John Reid, the resident friend whose bed and board is funded by what he considers to be his entertainment value. Initially, John seems to be the play’s fop, permanently installed with feet up on the sofa and issuing witticisms, loathe to do any work, and with a penchant for pocketing household items. What soon emerges, however, is an incredibly perceptive and wise man whose sanity and sound judgement prevent (or almost prevent) several messy situations in the play. Like Lear’s Fool, John is David’s closest ally as they jest together, wind each other up, and merrily and moodily rub along side by side. Fundamentally, David hears from John the truth, superficially rejects it, and then accepts it. Lear’s question to the Fool, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” to which the Fool answers, “Lear’s shadow” would not be out of place in the play, which essentially tracks David’s plight to find himself in a society where disguising oneself is the default. Scarborough, with his stout and calmly watchful presence is pitch-perfect in this role and the production’s greatest asset.

The National at the moment seems to be having a field day with deliciously extravagant set designs and this production is no different. An elegant 1930s style apartment in Mayfair, with a grand piano and a long balcony running its length immediately capture the grandeur and excess of this era. Yet, during the second act’s stylish and decadent party, the balcony curtains are drawn back to reveal a woman knelt in front of a trouserless man on the balcony. It is also from this balcony that the tragic turning-point of the plot happens. This inseparable mix of superficial romance and deep-rooted sordidness makes Rattigan’s play so particularly potent, and is beautifully encapsulated in Sharrock’s production.

Full credit to every member of this cast and creative team for their involvement in what is undoubtedly the best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.

After the Dance

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