The trickiest sort of review to write, I find, is of a production that is far better or worse than a play one is seeing for the first time. The natural tendency is to overrate a bad play with a superb cast, and underrate a worthy play with a poor one, and being aware of this may lead one to overcompensate. The Oxford Stage Company, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, is awesomely good, but the play it is currently doing is dreadful – or is it?
After the Dance was Terence Rattigan's follow-up, in 1939, to his spectacularly successful debut three years earlier, the frothy French Without Tears. An essay in the programme attributes the mood of the play, and its commercial failure, to the sombre atmosphere of impending war, but its hopeless tone is a more likely reason, and would seem to owe more to Rattigan's own anxieties. Following a light comedy with a cold-sober tragedy (this play could have been titled "The Big Hangover") was a canny move, but in After the Dance, all Rattigan's weaknesses are on parade. The women conform to the homosexual author's three female stereotypes: the good chap, the comedian, and the killer bitch, the last shown here, in embryo, as the flaming youthful idealist.
The plot is "serious'' (ie, maudlin) Noël Coward crossed with boys'-book nobility. When presented, separately, with a good reason for renouncing their way of life, Mr and Mrs Frightf'lly-Amusing of Mayfair (aka David and Joan Scott-Fowler) promptly do so; what kept them together, apparently, was that both were highly suggestible masochists.The young, educated man who lives with and off them remains a parasite because the only alternative would be washing windows.
And the play even contains its own self-criticism: this limp, hangdog piece bursts into theatrical life only when the "worthless'' characters come on, such as Joanna Scanlan's oafish vulgarian, who dives head first on to the sofa in pursuit of a drink.
And yet – and yet, though my first instinct was to think, who cares about these rich ninnies, former Bright Young Things who "never were bright, and now [are] not even young", I could not, somehow, ridicule or dismiss them. The play's bleakness and disillusion are so deeply felt that they make one see past its dated qualities to its poignant observations on the English character – the "reluctance to interfere'' or "respect for privacy'' that is really coldness and indifference.
Michael Siberry as the middle-aged wastrel David, Catherine Russell as his wife, Joan, Bob Barrett as their house guest, and Anna Hope as the terrifying sexual fascist, all act with conviction – as does every other member of the company. Jonathan Fensom's set is, wisely, no chic drawing-room but the art-free sea-green walls and dark-red upholstery of upper-class slothful philistinism. When Hope enters, wearing clothes in the same colours, we realise that she's ready to move right in. It's touches like this that confirm the subtle intelligence at work in this seemingly silly but oddly disturbing play.
Touring to 30 November (01865 723238 for details)
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