Theatre Review: After the Dance lacks a strong message for modern audiences (at Sydney’s New Theatre until 9 September)

The characters in Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance spend a lot of the play complaining about people they consider boring. But sadly for the New Theatre, the biggest bore in this production is the play itself. Despite some commendable performances by key members of the cast, this play just doesn’t seem to have anything to say to today’s audience.

After the Dance is set in London in the late 1930s. A group of once ‘bright young things’ approach their middle age, and the impending Second World War, by blending copious amounts of alcohol with exaggerated recollections of the parties they used to attend in the 1920s. We are given a glimpse into their lives through the living room of David, a would-be historical writer, and his wife Joan. While David continues his party lifestyle, his younger assistant, Peter, attempts valiantly to keep his literary project moving forward.

Peter, and his girlfriend Helen, are the antithesis of David and Joan. For starters, they believe in the importance of working for a living, not simply spending money on being social. But when David is warned his drinking has manifested into the early stages of liver failure, he turns his back on the booze. And it seems other aspects of his languid life are soon to follow.

In the title role of David, George Banders has a down-trodden, soft demeanour throughout. He seems to lack enthusiasm for life, which doesn’t quite resonate with the journey the character is on. His accent is wonderful though.

As Joan, Amelia Roberson-Cunninghame is delightful. Poised, practised and with gestures that perfectly invoke the period, she handles the complex range of emotions demanded by the character well.

David’s home, or more often than not, his lounge, is occupied by childhood friend John, played expertly by John Michael Burdon. Sarcastic, bordering on camp, Burdon’s performance is bitingly realistic and suits him to a tee. He, too, has the accent and mannerisms down pat.

Rowan Davie brings the same level of craftsmanship to Peter. Some odd directorial choices meant he never felt quite settled in the role, but his vocals were excellent and his return in the second act suitably dissonant to his earlier demeanour.

Rounding out the main cast as Peter’s girlfriend Helen is Claudia Ware. Ware is perhaps a trifle too realistic in her portrayal, as it is difficult to understand the motivations of her character in the beginning. While looking perfect for the part, she seemed to lack a little oomph.

There are an extraordinary number of other bit-parts in the play, too many to go into, but warranting a special mention are Sandra Campbell for both her turn as the schoolmarm-ish Miss Potter and the drunken party guest, and the ‘just ducky’ Alyssan Russell as Julia, who absolutely steals the show.

John Cervenka’s set design utilises a few period-ish pieces of furniture, but relies heavily on the audience’s imagination to conjure the sense of an English apartment circa 1930. There are no doors, and the walls, dictated by angled flats, are oddly concrete looking. What does work well is the folding screen which is opened to reveal a balcony beyond. It is used throughout the piece to great effect. A couple of small technical hiccups marred otherwise sound efforts from lighting and sound.

Director, Giles Gartrell-Mills, has approached the play with a fairly flat bat, taking very few risks with the style or text. More could have been done to bring out the humour of the first act, to offset the later drama, which is done quite well. One tactic that seemed like it should have worked was the use of the full cast at the beginning of each act to indicate that a party had taken place. It was a good theatrical choice, although not executed perfectly.

All up, what drags the production down is not so much the technical aspects but the text. Theatre doesn’t have to preach to audiences or draw parallels to the modern world – it can simply be an entertaining way to pass a few hours – but it certainly helps. Good performances aside, the message here was not clear.

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After the Dance is playing at the New Theatre, Newtown until 9th September. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Thursday 10th August.

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