“Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” This famous proverb could well be the mantra for the Bright Young People (partygoers and hedonists who reacted to surviving the Great War by carrying on as if the present-day world could vanish at any moment) who populate the lead roles of Terence Rattigan’s seldom-seen After the Dance.
Scotch devotee David Scott-Fowler (Patrick Galligan) has scads of money, a devoted gin-guzzling wife, Joan (Deborah Hay), and a moody ward, Peter (Ken James Stewart) who valiantly takes down every word of David’s whisky-engendered dissertations on a long-forgotten Belgian monarch that are meant to become his contribution to the world’s historical literature. It’s been five years in the making and nearly complete as the play begins in the well-appointed Mayfair digs.
Also ensconced in the Scott-Fowler household is long-time friend and perpetual-bartender John Reid (Neil Barclay in one of his finest outings to date), who gulps down as much as he serves, be that never-ending swirls of booze or philosophical/social/relationship pronouncements whose veracity demands another shot to accompany his thoughts and advice (which, like most consultants is wanted but then ignored).
Peter’s belle comes in the smart, sophisticated form of Helen Banner (Marla McLean has the no-nonsense home-wrecker’s tone down pat but needs a little more inner-evil to occasionally rise to the surface). She uses her engagement to the male stenographer as the means of gaining easy access to the Scott-Fowler domain:; her target is the single-malt lord of the manor.
Early on in the proceedings, she summons her brother (Jesse Martyn) to examine her intended in hopes that the grim reality of cirrhosis of the liver will sober him up and then fall into her arms with gratitude. Incredibly, the plan works.
As happens frequently in this thinly veiled polemic, Rattigan makes his characters dance through actions and transformations that stretch their credibility to the bursting point before snapping into a morass of unbelievable (even for the stage) results.
Before you can say “Pass the cranberry juice,” the career alcoholic has gone drier than the Sahara Desert but is happy to continue the free-flow of addictive spirits to those living under the same roof.
When told by Helen that he loves her, David eagerly agrees but lets the ambitious vixen deliver the divorce demand to Joan (whose always loved her man, but thought it best to keep her true feelings on the DL) and the “I’m leaving you for your employer/father-figure” revelation to Peter.
Helen’s also read every syllable of her sudden teetotaler’s book and unequivocally pronounces it to be a flop. Her prescription is for them to move to a quiet country house where she will inspire, cajole and mould her husband’s thoughts into a bestseller: Pygmalion of the literary arts.
Fortunately, the parties continue even as the lives of all of the principals are being unalterably reconfigured by the brazen do-gooder.
One of the best scenes of director Christopher Newton’s valiant production (with a script that taxes the patience of all those except the cell-phone/beeper crowd—at this performance the assisted-hearing devices provided seven minutes of continuous feedback that added to the angst on both sides of the footlights) is crafted by Hay and Barclay. Joan’s dozen years of marital success are collapsing because she assumed David understood her deep affection and devotion. “He just wants to hear that he’s loved,” confides their mutual friend with a shivering tone that comforts the rejected woman and simultaneously strips bare the selfish, failed writer.
Naturally, there’s to be a bash at the Scott-Flower’s where both women will prove just how modern they are and party hardy as they prepare to switch roles. Fueled by copious amounts her favourite elixir, Joan and David finally get a moment to themselves. All seems well. On request, the former-drinker plays “Avalon;” the quiet ballad brings back many happy memories, it’s feelings of love and tenderness, like Joan’s, are heard in every bar but expressed subliminally. No better moment than this to dash out and over the balcony—ensuring a clear playing field for the future Mrs. Scott-Fowler.
What then of Peter? With the news that Helen covets his former-mentor, the hot-headed youth immediately packed and left vowing never to return. Who wouldn’t?
Rattigan foils us again. A few months after Joan’s death, the petulant pauper leaves his pride at the door and comes “home” to demand a wee bit of cash, gaining a monetary pittance, losing all credibility but serving the playwright’s own devices by setting up an ending that is so unbelievable it must be seen to be mocked.
Some plays have a short “shelf life” for good reason. Still, come for the possibilities but stay for the acting gems scattered amongst the contrived characterizations and purposeful pillory of small-l liberals in post-war London. JWR