After The Dance – Terence Rattigan @ Theatre by the Lake

I’m a bit of a Terence Rattigan fan. I’ve enjoyed watched Flare Path, The Deep Blue Sea, (copious times but I imagine that may also have been for another reason!) When the Sun Shines, French Without Tears & Love in Idleness; so I was delighted to see that Theatre by the Lake were putting on a production of After the Dance, one of  Rattigan’s lesser known plays.   

Unlike many of his other works, whilst After the Dance was a critical success it was a major failure with audiences; it closed within two months of opening in 1939. Rattigan had dropped out of college to become a full time writer, a move which had led to him to making a deal with his father; he could live at home and write for two years, but if by the end of that time he had had no success he would take up a more respectable profession. As the months rolled on Rattigan became more and more desperate as each project he immersed himself into came to nothing. Rattigan had penned a play about his time at a French boarding school entitled Gone Away, but no-one wished to produce it. A stroke of luck appeared when one of Donald Albery’s productions was losing money and he needed to pull the show and replace it with something else. Rattigan’s Gone Away was cheap to produce as it required only one set and a limited cast, but Albery hated the title. It was renamed French Without Tears, and an unexpected success materialised. Audiences loved it, including The Times! It ran for three years, earning Rattigan £100 per week, and he set forth spending his money with gusto.

The problem with success is how to follow it up. With the outbreak of war, Rattigan’s next two plays failed dismally. After the Dance failed to engage audiences who were worried about the crisis in Europe and Follow My Leader, a farce based on the rise of Hitler was banned from production. Rattigan became insecure about writing and visited a psychiatrist for help. The answer was to join the RAF, which should ease his mental block! Bizarrely, from his experiences in the RAF Flare Path was born; it was the first Rattigan play I ever saw staged, and the one that created the desire to watch all things Rattigan!

After the Dance enters the life of David and Joan, a married couple who are now in their thirties. They lived through the heyday of the twenties, a time of decadent London parties which earnt youths the title “The Bright Young Things.” (I recommend reading Vile Bodies by Evelyn Vaugh upon which Stephen Fry’s film The Bright Young Things was based for an insight into the period.)

The play opens on John Reid (Matthew Mellalieu) lounging around in his silk pyjamas with a large G&T in hand for breakfast!  He lives in David and Joan’s flat, seemingly with no cares in the world. He has always held a candle for Joan, and they still try to live the flamboyant booze fuelled nights of their youth. The younger, less exuberant new generation of youths is found in David’s cousin Peter (Adam Buchanan) and his fiancée Helen. 

David’s excessive drinking has caused cirrhosis of his liver and the moralistic Helen (Charlotte Hamblin) is very clear about why he needs to stop drinking and trying to still live his youth. It soon becomes apparent though that Helen’s concern for David is turning into love. This love is reciprocated, and soon Joan learns of David’s desire to divorce her and marry Helen. Joan is secretly distraught. Izabella Urbanowicz is glorious as Joan, seemingly never one to let life get in the way of a glitzy party, but showing just a tiny hint of wistful regret to how her life has panned out. She puts a brave face on the demise of her marriage, organising another one of her parties with great gusto. Only John knows how much she really loves David and how his actions have caused her so much pain. 

With the party is in full swing Joan quietly and without fuss slips away. As time marches on, David’s attempts at sobriety are waning. In a startling twist, John finally stops his sloth-like behaviour and confronts David with a few home truths about how Helen may soon head down the path of oblivion as Joan before her. As the curtains close, David can be seen pouring himself a drink, foretelling a long slow death ahead of him. 

This play was a complete change for Rattigan. Not the light-hearted moments of French Without Tears, but a glimpse into the workings of the human heart and how people put that stiff upper lip on matters of great importance. As Rattigan’s career grew, he became a man with a great insight and understanding of the human condition. It is a great shame that French Without Tears was not a success with the public. It closed after only 60 performances and Rattigan became dismissive of his play, not allowing it to be published in his Collected Plays.  

The BBC revived After The Dance in the 1990s when they did a series of stage plays, again it received great critical acclaim. It showed that it was a play that had stood the test of time – its themes still as resonant now as it was then. It was a personal joy to see Theatre by the Lake resurrecting one of Rattigan’s lesser known pieces and it was a night filled with laughter, joy and despair.

All of the performances were excellent and I was particularly amazed to see Charlotte Hamblin, James Sheldon and Izabella Urbanowicz carry out such heartrending performances after having seen them the night before in another emotionally charged drama, Miss Julie. This is a play with many different, complex relationships and it shows how life’s dilemmas can take their toll on people of all classes. It was beautifully staged and a real gem of a Rattigan play.

After the Dance runs at Theatre by the Lake until Saturday 4th November.