Sunday, 6 June 2010

After the Dance - National Theatre, Saturday 6th June 2010


1939. Mayfair. David and Joan Scott-Fowler are a high-living and hard-drinking couple who are still trying to live the hedonistic excess of their - and the century's - twenties. Through the eyes of a younger generation, the endless drinking, partying and gossip look dangerously frivolous as Europe falls towards another war. As the world races towards catastrophe, a crowd of Mayfair socialites party their way to oblivion. At its centre is David, who idles away his sober moments researching a futile book until the beautiful Helen decides to save him, shattering his marriage and learning too late the depth of both David’s indolence and his wife’s undeclared love. But with finances about to crash and humanity on the brink of global conflict, the drink keeps flowing and the revellers dance on.

David Scott-Fowler: Benedict Cumberbatch
Joan, his wife: Nancy Carroll
David, his cousin: John Heffernan
Helen Banner, David’s fiancée – Faye Castelow
Dr. George Banner, Helen’s brother – Giles Cooper
John Reid: Adrian Scarborough
Williams: Nicholas Lumley
Julia Browne: Pandora Colin
Miss Potter: Jenny Galloway

Creative Team:
Director: Thea Sharrock
Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Music: Adrian Johnstone
Its hard to believe that I saw a preview performance of this, because its really difficult to see how it could get any better. Modern critics of Rattigan may dismiss him as a purveyor of tired old warhorses, rather in the same mould as Priestley. At first glance, the play isn’t going to win any awards for the world’s most exciting drama. But After The Dance is a solidly crafted and intelligent piece, slowly building both character development and plot. There are moments of high comedy and of almost unbearable pathos. There are times, of course, when it feels a little dated, but this is a playwright who obviously knew what he was doing, and studying this production could teach some modern writers exactly how to construct a successful play. The director and designer could also give lessons in staging one, and the cast in how to perform one. The lighting director could certainly give masterclasses in how to light one. It’s the kind of production that the National should be championing – the place was packed out and the entire audience appeared to enjoy themselves – in fact, the chap in the row in front of me sat enraptured for the entire performance, even having to dab at his eyes with a hanky at one point (a little OTT, perhaps, but an endorsement nonetheless). Three hours literally sped by, despite my cramped seat, the heat of the evening and the rather off-putting noise from the pigeons nesting in the fly tower.

It looks gorgeous, with a sumptuously detailed set that brought to mind last year’s Time and the Conways (a tiny, tiny point I noticed, however, was that the table lamp had a square, three-pin plug when it should have been a round, two-pin one given the setting of 1938. I was also a little concerned to realise that the French windows didn’t have any glass in, making me wonder if any of the cast would be tempted to step through without opening them, a la Morecambe and Wise). The set was lit wonderfully, and if you decide to go and see this production, then please do take a second or two to notice how well the lighting designer has done his work – particularly the view through the windows and particularly in the party scene (doing so will also make sure you don’t miss what the couple on the balcony are discovered doing when the curtains are pulled back – the auditorium exploded with laughter at this point). The costumes are good too, although I did find myself wishing that they all hadn’t quite so obviously been designed to blend well with the set, and that Benedict Cumberbatch hadn’t been in the same costume for the entire performance, even though six months are supposed to elapse. Direction was spare, elegant and unfussy (like the set) when it needed to be, and intricate when necessary, with a particularly clever “wipe” between the two scenes of Act 2.

Even though the clipped vowels, hard consonants and speech rhythms of the late 1930s have been preserved and therefore make the play initially sound somewhat dated to modern ears, these are so consistently and faultlessly employed that after a short while your ear assimilates them and it becomes like listening to a period film. For me, this also served to heighten the effect – some phrases which would just sound totally ridiculous when given in modern speech patterns somehow seemed to ring truer or funnier for their “period delivery”. Some characters are almost parodies of the kind of parts you might find in Noel Coward, and are played as such, which has the strange effect of making the other characters considerably more human – even though they may be arrogantly disaffected or hopelessly naïve. In this zoo, the monsters are outside the bars and looking in, even though they don’t realise that their world is closing in on them. It might just be safer to be inside the cage than outside it.

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