Nancy Carroll and Benedict Cumberbatch
in After the Dance
(© Johan Persson)
Nancy Carroll and Benedict Cumberbatch
in After the Dance
(© Johan Persson)
Thea Sharrock's revival of Terence Rattigan's rarely-produced play After the Dance, now at the National Theatre, reveals it to be an insightful work, despite the fact that it had a short run originally and that Rattigan himself declined to include it in his collected works.

The play is a barbed portrait of a particular generation; those who were too young to have fought in the First World War and remained stubbornly blinkered to the war to come. Chief among them is David Scott-Fowler (Benedict Cumberbatch), a historian who has seemingly squandered his talent and intellect. He's supposedly working on a book on Italian history, but his life, and the life of his circle of friends, seems to involve a constant stream of parties and the avoidance of anything that could possibly be considered a bore.

Moreover, David's drinking has reached such a level that he is in danger of killing himself. His wife Joan (Nancy Carroll) presents a breezy front to the world and has sculpted herself into what she believes is David's perfect partner: cool, witty, at ease socially, and reluctant to push or scold him.

The play is set in the couple's Mayfair flat, an expensive but oddly comfortless space. In fact, there's very little pleasure in this gin-fueled, hedonistic world of theirs; it's a cruel, hard place where people's misfortunes are reduced to oft-told anecdotes and there's a sense of people just going through the motions. The younger generation are, in contrast, presented as far more grounded and serious-minded. This is encapsulated in the character of Peter (John Heffernan), David's younger cousin, who is working as his secretary.

A somewhat implausible attraction develops between David and Peter's perky, 20-year-old fiancée Helen (Fay Castelow), who convinces David to give up the drink and to start striving for greater academic success. The blossoming love between them strikes the one awkward note in an otherwise rich and moving piece; and unfortunately it's a pivotal one. It's almost impossible to believe the character of David lusting after bright, bland Helen. Yet lust he does, eventually deciding to leave Joan for the younger girl.

Cumberbatch's modulated performance captures David's complexities and his odd passivity coupled with his hunger for something more. Indeed, there's a wrenching moment when Joan stands over David as he plays the piano, which is rich with loss and love on both their parts.

Adrian Scarborough is also superb as the couple's old friend, John, who cheerfully leeches off them and yet is clearly deeply fond of them both and is capable of greater reflection and insight than might at first seem apparent.

But the real emotional weight of the play is carried by Carroll, as the seemingly resilient Joan who has made an art out of concealing the true depths of her feelings for her husband. For fear of alienating him and for fear of being seen as "a bore," she has downplayed her affections for years. The cracking of her façade when she realizes that her suspicions are true and that he intends to leave her is heartbreaking to watch.