It’s not often you go to the National Theatre and see French windows on stage. But there they are, nestling behind the rustling curtains on Hildegard Bechtler’s elegant drawing room set for After the Dance. Any sense that we are in for an evening of comforting tittle-tattle is soon dispelled, however, in Thea Sharrock’s superb production of this rarely seen Terence Rattigan play. Her perfectly pitched staging savours the dramatist’s acid critique of an inter-war generation partying its way to oblivion. But what makes this production so good is that she also draws out Rattigan’s subtleties and sympathies, making us realise that it’s not for nothing that he has been dubbed the English Chekhov.

Rattigan set the play in 1938; it was first performed in 1939, just months before the outbreak of war. Behind all the grimly determined gaiety of the moneyed classes on stage, you can feel the storm clouds brewing. The party is definitely over, though some can’t bear to admit it and, as Rattigan makes clear, don’t know how to stop. Chief among these are David Scott-Fowler, a wealthy hedonist who, in between drinking himself to death, is tinkering at a pointless history book, and his breezily nonchalant wife. Around them buzz a crew of feckless, reckless party-goers, whose approach to the gravity of the international situation is brilliantly summed up in one character’s plan to throw a gas-mask party.

This is the sort of household where people rise at noon and make straight for the gin bottle. But changes are afoot. Some of the younger generation take a dim view of all the tippling. David’s impoverished cousin (John Heffernan) actually wants to work; his girlfriend, Helen, wants to make David work. Besotted with David, she is determined to rescue him (shades of Ibsen here, as well as Chekhov) and make him knuckle down to something. She’s right, but she’s also self-righteous and in some ways every bit as selfish as the rash characters she scorns (Faye Castelow’s performance suggests a touch of steel beneath the wide-eyed sweetness). It is here that we see the calibre of Rattigan’s play. He doesn’t offer easy answers, but tragedy in the shape of characters who know what they should do, but know it’s too late to do it.

It all unfolds a little slowly for modern tastes, and there are holes in both play and production. It is hard to believe that David would fall for Helen or throw in his lot with her. But it is also hard to mind when so many performances are so good. Benedict Cumberbatch glides around the stage as David, exuding the charm of self-absorption, but also suggesting a growing, underlying panic. Nancy Carroll is outstanding as his wife Joan, her brittle gaiety giving way to desolate grief when she realises she has played the wrong hand, and Adrian Scarborough is spot-on as John, the droll houseguest who gradually exchanges wisecracks for wisdom as he realises what is happening. () www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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