After the Dance

Andrew Billen is impressed by a finely crafted satire on the interwar generation.

After the Dance
National Theatre, London SE1

People have never bought the New Statesman to be acquainted with conventional opinion. In June 1939, as most of the press gave Terence Rattigan's After the Dance a rapturous reception, my own distant predecessor dissented, writing: "Mr Rattigan has found a fine, fat theme for a comedy, and wasted it upon a melodrama." The Staggers was soon vindicated. Rattigan's follow-up to his riotously successful debut, French Without Tears, closed after 60 performances. Yet - and forgive me - this new, rare revival suggests the NS was wrong.

It seems to me that Rattigan's subject - the proposition that the upper-class generation that just missed the First World War went on to miss the chance of averting the Second - was too big for a comedy to digest. As for its being melodrama: one character's suicidal fall from a balcony in Mayfair no more makes a melodrama than one sip makes an alcoholic. Talking of which, as often when watching a play from the 20th century, you are struck seeing this one by how much it was acceptable to drink.

The curtain rises on three hangovers, belonging, respectively, to the unpublished, waster historian David Scott-Fowler (who is languishing in his room offstage), his amanuensis and cousin, Peter, and his layabout friend John Reid. Usually to be found on a sofa, Reid, played as a sleepy but sharp-clawed creature by Adrian Scarborough, looks the most hopeless case, but as the play goes on it becomes clear that, just as a spectator sometimes sees more of the game, Reid, from his prone vantage point, can better observe what is happening to his friends than they can him.Crucially he understands that David's wife, Joan (a stonking performance here from Nancy Carroll), may have risen to the challenge of entertaining her husband by keeping up an incessant patter of wit and insult, but that she is also in love with him.

It is 1939, and these bright young things are certainly no longer young. Frightened above all of being bored or being boring, they drink, they take drugs and they fight, sometimes all at once, at the decadent yet unsatisfactory parties they hold. They are stuck in the early 1920s or, in David case's, the life of King "Bomba" of Naples - a book on which he is making little progress.

It is as if these non-veterans of the trenches have been shell-shocked into idiocy and are unable to engage with work, society or even with one another. Politics is the ultimate bore.

In comes a more earnest generation. It is represented by Peter, who believes in the dignity of labour - even when undertaken with a hangover - and his fiancée, Helen. It is Helen, a frail teenager in Faye Castelow's rendition, who is the catalyst for change. She falls in love with David and persuades him to leave his wife, mainly by telling him, unusually, how bad his book is, but also by getting her doctor brother in to persuade him to stop drinking. On paper, it might be hard to see why she falls for him, but on stage Benedict Cumberbatch, from the moment he enters, radiates a charisma that could blind a girl to his emotional immaturity and selfishness. Her gift to him and his circle is to move them on, removing the needle from the groove in the 1920s record in which it has got stuck (she does this literally at one point).

The play is an attack on the generation and class just above Rattigan's, but it is a subtle and nuanced one. Joan is cleverer and nicer than Helen, who is indifferent to the pain she causes jilted Peter. Arthur, who runs a window cleaning business in Manchester and has the one direct speech about the forthcoming war, truly isn't much fun. The bright old things' resistance to the deteriorating reality is almost heroic. Thea Sharrock's production finds every texture in this unjustly neglected play, failing only to generate much sexual spark between Castelow and Cumberbatch.

In 1939 After the Dance closed, not because of the New Statesman, but thanks to the war. Audiences doubtless would have preferred Rattigan to have written a comedy. The following year Michael Foot, Peter Howard and Frank Owen published a book called Guilty Men. It named politicians. Rattigan's finger pointed in an even more interesting direction.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas