Following a triumph with his money-spinning French Without Tears, the 26-year-old Terence Rattigan planned a play of ideas and social criticism to prove he was not just a lightweight farceur. The result was the weighty, long-forgotten After the Dance, its much delayed run falling victim to the outbreak of war in 1939.
Thea Sharrock’s superbly articulated production, the play’s very first London revival, does not reveal a lost masterpiece. The lives and preoccupations of its protagonists belong to the past. But it proves again that Rattigan could write marvellous, deeply emotional roles for women.
Ostensibly he pits leftish, seriously-minded youth against the rich and ageing Bright Young Things of the twenties, still grotesquely partying while the Nazis back Franco with bombs and plot their blitzkrieg march on Poland. But at the heart of the play, David, a whisky-swigging historian, is torn in love between his mature, elegant wife Joan and her rival Helen, crisply played by Faye Castelow, a shrill, high-minded young woman who gets him off the bottle and plans a nice, quiet little divorce followed by married bliss in the New Forest.
A huge, accomplished cast includes a deliciously comic turn by Adrian Scarborough as the amusing parasite John Reid, earning his keep and his booze with droll asides from the comfort of a sofa, while John Heffernan as David’s uptight young cousin Peter acts as amanuensis and surrenders his tenuous hold on Helen.
Upcoming star Benedict Cumberbatch here splendidly assumes midlife maturity as David. But the great, beating heart of the play comes with Nancy Carroll’s glorious performance as Joan, a wife who conceals her overwhelming love for David in case he might think it was boring, now revealing the depths of her despair and desolation in a powerfully wrought scene in the unexpectedly comforting arms of John.