English theater is constantly rediscovering Terence Rattigan as one of its great undersung writing talents. This latest contribution to the Rattigan renaissance is a lavish new staging of a tragic satire that the writer disowned after its brief 1939 premiere run but has since been hailed as a major work. Despite the play’s unfashionably leisurely exposition, Thea Sharrock’s production has all the trappings of a summertime Brit hit: cocktail shakers, gorgeous frocks and repressed desires shimmering under the surface of fatally witty dialogue — as well as a fascinating final act adding a welcome parting shot of depth and ambiguity.
Rattigan’s second West End outing, “After the Dance” received strong reviews at its premiere but closed after only 60 perfs because its portrait of formerly beautiful young things disintegrating under the weight of their own decadence seemed like too much bad news in the face of WWII. A BBC radio version in 1994 began to restore its reputation, but this National Theater staging is the biggest test yet of its mainstage legs.
The setting is the unfeasibly large and stylish Mayfair apartment — gorgeously designed by Hildegard Bechtler — of David (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Joan (Nancy Carroll) Scott-Fowler, a married couple in their late 30s at the center of a moneyed, hedonistic social circle. Twenty-year-old Helen (Faye Castelow), girlfriend of David’s cousin Peter (John Heffernan), develops a crush on David and tries to get him to end his suicidal relationship with drink. Surprisingly, he acquiesces, and the pair fall in love — or at least say they’re in love: one of Rattigan’s points is how eager his characters are to talk about their emotional states, but how unable they really are to access their feelings.
It’s only after Helen pertly informs Joan that she’ll “have to divorce” David that we — and perhaps the character herself — realize just how deep Joan’s feelings for her husband run. In an affecting sequence anchoring a bravura perf, Joan sobs, “I’m not much use to him any longer, since I’ve got old.” Perhaps unable to cope with such depth of real feeling, she takes her own life.
The final act turns self-consciously Chekhovian, as underlined by Mark Henderson’s somber lighting: Rattigan’s characters attempt to turn themselves to more meaningful pursuits — with evident strain. The character with the most surprises up his sleeve is John (Adrian Scarborough), David’s sponging friend, who leaves the household to take up work but not before forcing David to face his own hypocrisy. By contempo standards, David’s reversal happens too quickly, but the questions of responsibility raised by the final twists and turns of the plot offer a pleasing final blast of moral complexity.
By and large, the acting company excels at the challenge of Rattigan’s writing. Rising star Cumberbatch may still be a few years too young to fully deliver a leading role as complex as this one but comes into his own in the final act. The standouts here are Carroll’s initially jolly, eventually anguished Joan and Scarborough as the lush-turned-truthteller John.
English critics tend to praise Rattigan for the “universal” truths of human behavior his plays reveal, but to an outside observer, the strength of this play is the way it captures the peculiarly English — and still enduring — tendency towards surface dazzle and inner torment.