After the Dance, National Theatre, NT Lyttelton, June 2010

“I love you, now change” is not a line in this play, but the young Helen lives this cliché, and at first seems to make it believable. Within a month she’s fallen in love with David Scott-Fowler and manages to get him to stop the drinking that’s destroying his liver. Her determined superficiality shatters her fiancé Peter Scott-Fowler, upends David’s 12 year marriage, and destroys his wife Joan. While these people wear the masks of gaiety and jest, and seem almost to have become their masks, reality persists beneath the surface, and the only person to fully comprehend it is John Reid, who lives with David and Joan in their spacious London flat as a self-confessed court jester, with a strong penchant for the drinks tray.

David with Helen

In the end it is John who tells David the truth about himself that kills the incipient marriage to Helen, and returns him to his former life, now as a widower. In the meantime we are treated to superb acting. Adrian Scarborough is brilliant as John, and Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll are entirely convincing as the ever cool David and his wife Joan, who loves him but gaily pretends to be just as cool, so as not to bore him. Faye Castelow portrays Helen as a bossy little ingénue, and John Hefferman is a rather edgy Peter, who tries to take life seriously, but doesn’t quite succeed.

David playing Avalon for Joan

What I loved about this fine production by Thea Sharrock, apart from the spacious and elegant designs by Hildegard Bechtler, was the music. Certainly the play features the 1920s foxtrot ‘Avalon’ towards the end of each act, but the melody was pinched from Puccini, albeit in a disguised form, and in this production we also hear the original. For those who know it, this is powerfully suggestive because it’s the music behind E lucevan le stelle from the opera Tosca. Cavaradossi sings it before he dies, knowing that these are his last moments, and it was played here just before Joan goes out to the balcony on her own, never to return, and again at the end when David decides to return to the drinking that will destroy him.

This riveting play by Terence Rattigan had the misfortune to open in June 1939, shortly before war was declared, and when the country’s mood rapidly changed it was taken off. So it failed to enjoy a good run, and Rattigan left it out of the collected plays he published in 1953. It’s been somewhat ignored for that reason, but this production and cast do it full justice, and I recommend booking tickets before word gets out.

Performances continue until August 11th — for details click here.

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