My but they drink an awful lot in Terence Rattigan’s After The Dance. Brandy for breakfast, gin for elevenses – no wonder Benedict Cumberbatch’s David Scott-Fowler has cirrhosis of the liver. Set on the eve of World War II in the salubrious environs of David and his wife Joan’s swish Mayfair pad, Rattigan’s rarely performed 1939 play (the original run closed after just 60 performances) is a wryly sardonic portrait of the decadent upper-middle classes gaudily boozing their way into spiritual oblivion.
David and Joan’s marriage is a strange society arrangement of convenience. They got married for a wheeze and liked each other enough to stay together without questioning it for 12 years. Until, that is, the girlfriend of David’s ward Peter, Faye Castelow's prim, bossy, demure Helen, enters the picture and decides to rescue aspiring writer David from his unfulfilled hedonism and promptly wins his atrophied, egotistical little heart.
Thea Sharrock’s lavish National Theatre production, set against Hildegard Bechtler’s pearl and gold-coloured drawing room set, is in no rush, and for the first act is content for Rattigan to set the scene: These are blithe, obnoxious people who wear their aggressive commitment to caning it and dislike of anything that’s a "bore" almost as a defensive badge of honour. The wit is delicious – as good as Noel Coward – and thanks in no small part to a pitch-perfect Adrian Scarborough as louche hanger-on John, who spends virtually the whole first act lying down, either on the sofa or off stage in the bath.
Despite its carefully calibrated portrait of a casually nihilistic generation set against the falling shadow of war, Rattigan’s play is essentially a portrait of the inability of the English to say what they really feel. To an extent, the partying Joan and her friends indulge in is a form of endless emotional deferral, the glittering artifice of careless pleasure – so forcefully embraced by people long beyond the first flush of youth, you can almost see the strain.
Nancy Carroll is superb as Joan, though, always hinting at a pin-sharp intelligence beneath the shrill insincerity, and who crumples heartbreakingly into pieces on hearing David is leaving her: Never has she been able to tell him how much she really loves him. Sharrock’s production is full of similar psychological tensions: Cumberbatch’s David may have been persuaded into sobriety by someone else’s (misplaced) belief in him, but the vacuity curdling within him is evident from the moment Cumberbatch first strides into the room. Castelow is also excellent as the manipulative Helen, whose butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth piety can’t conceal an austere amorality that feels almost parasitic, while Scarborough comes into his own, as John morphs into an unexpected moral commentator, full of excoriating observations if only anyone would care to listen. But this was a lost generation, quite oblivious to what was round the corner, and this neglected great piece catches perfectly the poignant rhythms of their last, ghastly dance.