Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Lost Weekend

August 07, 2010

Nancy Carroll and Adrian Scarborough
Photo: Johan Persson/NT 2010

Before reaching Salzburg this week, I had a layover in London that allowed me to see the much lauded and popular new production of Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance. I got to see this National Theater production the old fashioned way – live in the theater as opposed to a filmed broadcast to a theater near me. But no matter what the format, the NT has managed to continue its recent roll of crowd-pleasers and critical winners with this revival of a rarely seen early work. The unexpected bit with After the Dance is that director Thea Sharrock and her superb cast does this by playing Rattigan’s drama from the 1930s entirely straight. After the Dance has long been a footnote in Rattigan’s career. An early flop that predated most of his career-making successes in mid-20th Century Britain, the play was one Rattigan distanced himself from later in life. There are many reasons, but one issue has to do with timing. After the Dance concerns the upper-crust “Bright Young People” who came to notoriety in Britain in the 20s and 30s. Rattigan’s play set on the eve of WWII draws what he sees as the hollow moral center of this life into the light. The play was well received, but a commercial failure given that it opened mere weeks before Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. And while it seems relevant on the surface, it wasn’t apparently what people wanted to see at that moment.

After the Dance is intensely melodramatic. An alcoholic, blocked writer elects to have an affair with the fiancee of his cousin resulting in wide ranging effects for everyone. His wife, in particular doesn't take the news well despite her efforts at keeping up appearances. There are a lot of speeches and tales about people becoming a bore to one another. With just a little tweaking, the play could have been the smash camp comedy of the year. But somehow it isn’t. Part of it is superb acting from Benedict Cumberbatch as the writer in question, and his wife, played by Nancy Carroll. They’re not just believable, but actually sympathetic. Meanwhile a number of superb comic foils played by Adrian Scarborough, Pandora Colin, and Jenny Galloway keep the tone mixed enough that the whole thing doesn’t sink under its own weight. Even the elaborate Mafair apartment set looks incredibly good on the stage and one is quickly taken in by the proceedings. In this production it’s actually possible to believe that the hand-wringing over any number of soap-opera plots actually elevates into a cautionary tale about paying the price for the moral choices we make in maintaining our sense of self. And some 60 years later, its a bit easier to see the wolf at the door and know how this gin0soaked party was in fact over in more ways than one. There is one week of performances left if you've got the chance to see it


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