Thursday, June 24, 2010

Twice this week I have come away from the National Theatre pondering how hard it must be for artistic directors as to how to fill their schedules.

The Donmar or the Menier for example are looked upon as having a certain caché but with runs allotted to a month or so that means these theatres at best can stage only 12 productions a year - and what plays get chosen? Monetary demands mean that a healthy sprinkling of popular titles and playwrights crop up again and again... but what gets left behind? What falls through the cracks?

The reason for these musings is down to seeing two excellent revivals of little-known early plays by Terence Rattigan and Tennessee Williams currently playing to packed houses at the NT.

Think of a Rattigan that gets revived and you will probably have THE WINSLOW BOY, THE DEEP BLUE SEA or SEPARATE TABLES on your list. At the Lyttleton however, Thea Sharrock has directed a revival of Rattigan's second play AFTER THE DANCE which I saw with Owen, Sharon and Eamonn.It opened in June 1939 to good reviews and enthusiastic audiences who no doubt responded to not only the high drama onstage but Rattigan's capturing of the zeitgeist of the country as it approached an unavoidable war. However this very atmosphere also was the production's downfall and as the situation worsened the play ended it's run after 2 months, less than a month before war was declared.

Rattigan appears to have had mixed feelings about it in hindsight, not including it in his Collected Plays when first published, probably because of it's failing to achieve as big a box office success as his later plays. There is also a theory that he was haunted by using the possible suicide of a young lover as a plot device in the play but then he is accused of using the same incident 13 years later in THE DEEP BLUE SEA so it appears to have been a handy haunting.The years in between might have lost out but it is this year's gain as what Sharrock's production showcases is a beautifully-crafted three-act play which nails a moment in time perfectly while also providing 5 cracking parts for actors to shine in.

Surprisingly only now making his NT debut, Benedict Cumberbatch (God, that name) is paired with the always-watchable Nancy Carroll as David and Joan, an archetypal Golden Couple who now find themselves at the wrong end of the 1930s after 12 years of marriage and secretly realise that their excessive round of drinks, parties, larks and more drinks will not stand scrutiny in the gray light of a possible war in Europe.

Independently wealthy, David is drinking himself into an early grave while half-heartedly writing a biography of a little-known Balkan hero. Joan fills in her time by being the effortlessly chic hub of a circle of feckless, equally-sensation-craving group of drinking friends. She also chooses to ignore her husband's frequent but non-threatening flings with pretty young things for to mind would of course be a crashing bore.

They also share their large London flat with John (Adrian Scarborough) one of their drinking friends who has become an unofficial lodger and spends his time happily lying on the couch singing for his supper by keeping them amused with his cutting quips about all and sundry. Also sharing the flat is David's cash-strapped cousin who he 'employs' to type up the occasional page of his never-ending book and the couple are friendly with his fiancee Helen (Faye Castelow) who is a frequent visitor.

Of course what soon becomes apparent is that Helen is besotted with David, determined to lead him to the right road of Great Writing and Sobriety through her devotion. She manages to get her doctor brother to examine David and he is confronted with the fact that he is in the early stages of Cirrhosis. David's vanity cannot withstand Helen's passionate declarations and eventually confesses that he has fallen for her too and knows with her help he can lead a Life With Meaning.Helen then becomes that most dreaded creature, one who knows that everyone will be happier if they all know the plain truth. She confronts Joan on the afternoon of a huge party being held at the flat and tells her plainly that Joan's marriage is over as David now loves her.

Joan responds just as Helen and David expect, calm and excepting of the ways of the world, however the reality is witnessed by an appalled John who finds Joan, broken and in despair. The party goes ahead but events take a shattering turn from which their lives are changed just as the approaching war will change their world forever.

Thea Sharrock's direction is a model of empathy and clarity, her handling of characters who could easily be looked upon as irritating and distancing are instead presented to us with an immediacy and sympathy that is rare among today's directors. Both Scarborough and Castelow appeared last year on the same stage in Rupert Goold's take on J.B. Priestley's TIME AND THE CONWAYS in which the characters were treated as mere caricature. Here Sharrock is unafraid of allowing her characters to have an inner emotional life which resonates strongly.

She has elicited strong performances from her cast, namely from Cumberbatch, Carroll and Scarborough, all of whom know exactly how to balance the brittle, knowing banter of the opening scenes with the raw emotional hurt that all the stylish wit is a carapace for.

Nancy Carroll was quite breathtaking as Joan, her early scenes suggesting the unforced, confidant glamour of Kay Hammond but shattering that image with her lonely devastation at the news of her husband wanting to end their life together.

Cumberbatch fitted almost seamlessly into the role of David, he even resembled any number of tall, ramrod-backed, English leading men like Michael Rennie or David Farrar. However like Carroll he also found layers of emotion within David which while not making him sympathetic, did make his choices understandable.

My friend Sharon asked me afterwards if I thought Adrian Scarborough was a possible future Knight of the theatre and his performance here suggested it's possibly only a matter of his getting a tiny step up to some good lead parts. Again he gave a subtle and nuanced performance as John, scathingly funny with the timing of death but able to suggest the anger, fear and loneliness of a man all to aware of the superficiality of his place in life.
Faye Castelow was fine as the frighteningly single-minded Helen although even Rattigan would have been alarmed by her Cut Glaws Eckcent which could have been slightly toned down. In a fine supporting cast special mention must be made for yet another exquisite performance by Jenny Galloway as Miss Potter, the no-nonsense, Widdecombe-esque copy typist that David finally employs.

A special word of praise for Hildegard Bechtler's deliciously sprawling set design for David and Joan's apartment and ravishing costumes, especially for Nancy Carroll. In particular, I really liked the subtle changes that turned the set from the casually elegant, lived-in home of the first two acts to the cold and empty haunted space of the third. Mark Henderson's lighting also was beautifully used to enhance the play.Next year is Rattigan's centenary and it is being marked with not only a retrospective at the National Film Theatre of films and tv plays based on his many works - PLEASE let them show the 1955 film of THE DEEP BLUE SEA starring Vivien Leigh - but a tribute at Chichester (where he has never gone out of fashion) and yet another screen remake of THE DEEP BLUE SEA but directed by Terence Davies which sounds quite exciting. So roll on next year!

In the meantime get yourself to the National Theatre to see AFTER THE DANCE.

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