Theatre in Wales

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A production brimming with young talent

At RWCMD

Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama-After the Dance , Cairn Studio, RWCMD Cardiff , December 8, 2008
At RWCMD by Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama-After the Dance “After the Dance” was Terence Rattigan’s second play, follow-up to the huge and lucrative success of “French without Tears.” Rattigan, aged twenty-seven when he wrote it in 1938, sets a post-Great War generation, in the form of twenty year olds, engaged couple Peter and Helen, against a cluster of thirty-something not-quite-so-young-bright-things, Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies” eight years older.

“After the Dance” was premiered in London in June 1939 and lasted a couple of months. Since then it has rarely, if ever, been produced. Charlotte Westenra’s revival is as much a piece of theatrical history as a challenging showcase for final year WCMD talent.

And there is a lot of talent of show. First, in the design; the Caird Studio reportedly has an intrusive concrete pillar. Here designer Rachel Wingate has artfully swathed it in a marble and mirrored wrap-around to become part of popular historian David Scott-Fowler’s capacious Mayfair flat. A grand piano, an art deco-suggesting chrome balustrade and balcony, an authentic period gramophone fill put the set. Kate Wilcock’s sound design mixes Gershwin and Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” with less familiar period popular music. As determined by the script the cast gathers around Thomas Hunt’s piano playing to end the third act singing the contemporary song “Avalon.”

The design extends to costume. The cast are presumably much the same age but the generational gap is cleverly reinforced by giving the thirty-somethings more baggily cut trousers and waistcoats. That is not to denigrate the acting skill on show; Thomas Hunt has not the just the hollow-eyed look of an alcoholic but he has a skillful droop in his neck, a posture that denotes ennui and lost youth.

It is one level of directorial achievement and detail to represent physically a world of silk pyjamas, floppy hair styles, and gin before breakfast, and quite another to elicit performances of this calibre. Right from the opening enunciation is unfailingly right. Words like “last” and “tub” become “laa-ast” and “tahb”, “all” becomes “o-rwll”.

In a piece of bravura blocking, on the part of director and actor alike, Sarah Ovens’ Joan moves at a crucial point to a foot in distance from the audience. With a party impending social propriety forbids that any hint of the emotional bombshell she has received should intrude. Sarah Ovens stands before us in close-up, racked, while permitting only the barest quiver of a quiver. It is the most potent moment of theatre I have seen this year.

As her youthful protagonist Abigail Parmenter’s Helen is cunningly dressed in red and turns neutral once she has achieved her objective. An initial sweetness transforms to the relentless fixity of purpose of a heat-seeking scud and all the while the social charm never wavers. It takes until the last act for David to discern “the streak of hardness” in her. (It would be interesting to know if Peter Nichols had knowledge of this play before he created the character of Kate in his great “Passion Play.”)

Director Charlotte Westenra has gone to great lengths to stress the historical context. Two mock-ups of “the Times” have been created with Neville Chamberlain first declaring “Peace in Our Time” and later giving warning to Germany. (They are in fact a-historical as the Times carried no news then on its front page. Similarly, a thriller “Death in the Commons” is, I think, under the Pelican imprint, a category reserved for non-fiction.) This exactitude of historical placing is not necessary; just because a play is set in 1938 does not mean that it somehow speaks of the war to come.

There is some rather stretched psychologising about how the characters lacked role models after the carnage of the Great War but it is not an overtly political play. What is compelling is just how much of “After the Dance” jumps across seven decades, for all its alien context of Mayfair parties, butlers and louche hangers-on. (Rhys Jennings’ John Reid is a delight from start to finish, in his languor, opportunism and paradoxical mix of parasitism and insightful care.) The themes of the evasion of maturity, the deep need for individual purpose, hedonism as an end in itself are all just as relevant now. An airless marriage is reduced to a source for an endless sequence of funny stories. The lures of drink and drugs are omnipresent.

Tom Cullen gets to play two roles, briefly but memorably. As Arthur Power he is the odd one out in the set, the one who has gone to work, even if required to commit social suicide by living in Manchester. Earlier, as Cyril Carter, he is stupendously and hopelessly drunk, his slur of speech an achievement of wonder.

There are occasional points to quibble over. Early on three members of the cast squeeze tightly onto a sofa. Alun Hill’s Peter is so supremely elegant that he would never enter into so inelegant an arrangement. Shekira Johnson’s Julia is gloriously over the top but even in this milieu I wondered about her spot of unabashed public testicle-kneading.

The conception of Moya Lexington as a leather-booted and coated lesbian is slightly over-stressed. Her conception owes something to Wedekind’s Countess Geschwitz but is it probable that an aviatrix would attend a fashionable party in celebrity flying gear? Maybe so. Rebecca Millett also doubles, unrecognisably, as the dryly comic Miss Potter.

I had been told that the best classic drama, of a consistently high standard, in Cardiff was to be seen at WCMD; on the evidence of “After the Dance” all too true.

Lastly, a footnote for history. Lyons Corner Houses (RIP 1977) get a mention as so often in drama but five times Rattigan’s script makes mention of Woolworths. The first mention earned a laugh. At that time, interestingly, it was high enough in quality to have a branch in Mayfair.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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