After the Dance, playing through October 6 at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), is a terrific play, and director Christopher Newton and his cast are putting on a first-class show.
Reading the program notes, Emsworth was reminded that many of his most memorable experiences at the Shaw Festival have been directed by Mr. Newton, not just plays like Noel Coward’s Cavalcade and Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan that are revived with some regularity, but also plays like Hobson’s Choice and Journey’s End that may have been popular in their day but are less known now.
After the Dance falls in neither category. It was a comparative flop in 1939, and in America we don’t know much about the playwright, Terence Ratigan. Yet Coward himself might have been proud to have written this witty, insightful play.
It is 1938, and Joan and David Scott-Fowler have been married for twelve years. In the roaring twenties, they were among the bright young things whose drunken parties and carefully cultivated poses were chronicled by Evelyn Waugh in his wickedly funny novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. Now, twelve aimless years later, life has become too, too boring for Joan and David and their friends.
David and Joan (played by Deborah Hay) are fond of each other, but their married life is as superficial as their social life. They hold parties in their stunning London apartment (designed by the Shaw’s William Schmuck), go to other people’s parties, and talk about parties past. And they have a permanent house guest in John Reid (played by Neil Barclay), who is witty, rotund, and unemployed.
They all drink, but David (Patrick Galligan) drinks too much. A history student in his university days, David works now and then on a biography of an obscure 19th-century Italian king; he has even hired his cousin Peter (played by Ken James Stewart) to take dictation and act as his secretary. But he knows his scholarship is shallow and that his prose is riddled with cliches.
As the play begins, a new friend has come into David’s life, Peter’s 20-year-old fiance Helen (played by Marla McLean). Peter wants desperately to marry Helen, but his income is too small. What Peter does not know, but what everyone else sees, is that Helen has fallen in love with David and wants to rescue him from self-destruction. David and Joan’s marriage hangs uneasily in the balance.
It is easy to care about these characters and to hurt when they hurt. In a brilliantly-penned scene at the end of the first act, David tells Joan that his book is worthless and that there is no point in starting over. We know — as does she — that he is also talking about their wasted life together.
David is a marvelous role for the square-jawed, silver-haired Patrick Galligan, one of our favorite actors at the Shaw Festival. We couldn’t help being reminded of his role several years ago in Journey’s End, set twenty years earlier in a foxhole during the Great War, in which he held together his embattled platoon (and anchored the play) with nothing more than his character’s decency and calm good sense.
And we can’t remember when we’ve enjoyed the talented Neil Barclay quite this much. Barclay has exquisite comic timing, and his scenes with Galligan and with Jay Turvey (who plays one of the few characters who has actually made something of himself, and who wants to give John Reid a job) are highlights of the play. The only disappointment in the show is the role of young Peter Scott-Fowler, played by Ken James Stewart, whose acting skills fall short of the standards set by the rest of the cast.
As Julia Browne, a party friend of the Scott-Fowlers who sweeps on and off the stage, carrying all before her, Lisa Horner is a standout. Best of all is Deborah Hay as the vulnerable, intelligent Joan Scott-Fowler, who realizes all too late what keeping her emotional distance from her husband has cost her.