Review: After the Dance

ABI BENNETT: ‘After a year at Cambridge, I had almost forgotten what it was like to visit a real theatre, to see real actors, with a real production budget…’

Adrain Scarborough Benedict Cumberbatch Bright Young Things Faye Castleow John Hefferman Nancy Carroll Terence Rattigan Thea Sharrock

On until 11th August, 7.30, Lyttleton Theatre, London.

Written by Terence Rattigan.

Directed by Thea Sharrock.


After a year at Cambridge, I had almost forgotten what it was like to visit a real theatre, to see real actors, with a real production budget, so such a fabulous, luscious production left me agape, both with joy and with the realisation of how far we have to go before we can reach such high levels. The set was sumptuous, albeit simple; the front room of the vast Mayfair flat inhabited by David (Benedict Cumberbatch), his wife Joan (Nancy Carroll), their friend and self-termed ‘parasite’ John (Adrian Scarborough), and David’s nephew Peter (John Heffernan).

Their hedonistic lives are turned upside down by the arrival of Peter’s girlfriend Helen (Faye Castelow), who believes she has fallen in love with David, and sets herself the mission of saving him from his life as a dissolute wastrel. The play exposes the vacuity of the alcohol-soaked lives of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, and poses the question of whether we should always choose destructive, all-consuming love over the quiet joys of companionable love.

Despite a simple plot where the twists are almost too obvious, the writing is masterful, and the exceptional acting brought out both hilarity and poignancy; at some points the audience were bellowing with laughter, and other points tears were flowing. Adrian Scarborough deserves praise for his tour de force as the greatest of all wastrels, playing up the comedy of his character in the first act, then giving way to quiet, devastating grief in the closing scenes. With a less masterful cast, the script could have fallen flat, leaving the audience restless after the epic three-hour running time.

After having left the theatre, I couldn’t help wondering why we haven’t seen more Rattigan in Cambridge, and then it struck me. Although we have a wealth of talent, I wouldn’t envy the task of a director searching for a student cast capable of breathing life into such a dialogue-heavy script. The attention to detail here was also breath-taking; doors leading off stage revealing glimpses of stacked book shelves; birdsong played to make uncomfortable silences even more uncomfortable; wallpaper whose colour seemed to change depending on the lighting, going from resplendent in the first two acts, to dingy at the end.

The only thing I left the theatre questioning was the third act; although the level of acting and direction continued astoundingly highly, I felt that nothing new had been revealed. It was painfully obvious at the end of the second act that the burgeoning relationship between Helen and David would never last, and the hopes and dreams of all the characters would come crashing down. For me, the last act felt somewhat anti-climactic after the dramatic conclusion of the second act, and left me almost restless, though that could have been the result of the tiny seats in the Lyttleton theatre, which even for me at my lofty height of 5’4”, were far too small to be comfortable for three hours. However, the last act did give Cumberbatch the opportunity for a fantastic depiction of a man finally coming to terms with his own ego.

Perhaps my point of view is simply the perspective of youth; we know our hopes and dreams are just that, and to see the gap between reality and expectations so explicitly portrayed hits us a little too close to home. Ultimately we would prefer to live fast and die young, as these characters are trying to do, than to realise our actions will have far reaching repercussions, a message which is as relevant now as it was when this play was first written.