Terence Rattigan personifies the maxim that you can’t keep a good man down. His style and content might be unfashionable but no one better captures the period before the rise of the ‘Angry Young Man’. The knight, whom so many love to hate, resurfaces this time at the Bridewell Theatre with a production of After The Dance.
A riveting Rattigan revival.
He was aged just twenty-eight when this, his fourth play, premiered in 1939. The years between the two World Wars that included the Great Depression were full of rising hopes and shattered expectations. It is no wonder that those with money often lived frivolously. After The Dance provides an insight into their world, not as a celebration, but as a critique of its superficiality and an exposé of its shallowness.
In the drawing-room of the Scott-Fowlers’ flat in Mayfair, the decanters of whiskey, gin and brandy stand out on the drinks table behind the sofa as much as they dominate the lives of the residents. David (Dom Ward) and socialite Joan (Liz Flint) keep their glasses topped up in a marriage that was solemnised more as an act of spiffing fun than a statement of amorous devotion. Together they stoke the fires of frivolity and whip the hounds of hedonism in the perpetual pursuit of pleasure, much to the delight of their friends, who are forever popping in to enjoy their chosen tipple and enliven the stream of parties, even if only at the level of gossip. Not least among these is the dreaded Julia, portrayed with a captivatingly gushing lack of awareness by Sara Beebe.
Drink permitting, David is a writer and historian, who employs his younger cousin, the earnest, responsible and sober Peter, (James Cross) as a live-in secretary. He met the controlling and determined Helen (Hannah Brooks) while they were both at Oxford and they intend to marry. Also lodging there is David’s long-standing, employment-shunning friend and commentator on life in the house and the world in general, John (Chris de Pury), another acolyte in the service of Bacchus.
All of that is on the surface: what lies beneath is even less appealing. David and Joan have never revealed their true feelings for each other. John is a meddling parasite. Peter is frustrated and Helen is the catalyst whose self-centred reforming and amorous machinations combined with stunning insensitivity will change everyone’s life with a dose of hard-hitting reality.
Rattigan’s dialogue moves effortlessly between these levels and the cast convincingly portrays the veneer of all being well, while bringing buried emotions to the surface when the banter touches a nerve. Ward demonstrates this in the varied exchanges that take him from the convivial man of the house to the lonely, emotionally shattered failure, haunted by the dream of what he might have been, who, faced with a world of poor options, decides that drinking himself to death might be the best. Flint elegantly fulfils the partying role that Joan has created in life for herself, but it’s as false as the life she lives with David. Flint heartbreakingly reveals this when facing the truth that could have saved her, and that causes her fragile world to crumble around her. Brooks, meanwhile, whose Helen starts out as just a very self-assured aspiring young lady, slowly increases the power and pressure she exerts on everyone until before long she is controlling the whole show. Only the clash of the black and white lines on her second act dress with the cushions, enough to have given Coco Chanel nightmares, is more brutal than her handling of those she purports to love. In contrast to the others, Cross seizes the opportunity to portray in Peter the noble virtues and youthful stiff upper lip of a man dedicated to integrity, though even he is forced to swallow his pride. The real world awaits no one as much as John, however. De Pury, manoeuvres him with measured pace to a devasting demise from the merriment of Mayfair, where he is the exuberant and idle fellow at the centre of other people’s lives, to the prospect of a humiliating existence away from his social circle.
Director Jon Foster and the resident Sedos team vividly bring to life this comic tragedy of people living in the past, wasting the present and fearing the future. The opening night was not without a slightly jittery start and no doubt the pace will quicken and humour sharpen as it proceeds, yet nothing seriously prevented it from being something of a riveting Rattigan revival. Aunt Edna would approve.