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Theatre: After Life, by Jack Thorne at the National Theatre

30 July 2021

Susan Gray reviews a play proposing that memories are all that survives death

© National Theatre © Johann Persson

The ensemble in After Life at the National Theatre

The ensemble in After Life at the National Theatre

AFTER LIFE is a dazzling exploration of mortality, centred on the concept that after we die we will be confronted with our own death as an event that has already happened rather than a dim prospect in some far off, hazy future. “I’m sorry for your loss,” says controller of the Facility, Five, as June Walton’s elderly suicide Beatrice blinks her way across the stage.

He then explains that she passed away yesterday, and will have six days to to select the one precious memory that she wants to take with her for all eternity.

Kevin McMonagle is marvellous as the Facility’s irascible head man, taking on the air of a seasoned Red Coat, ushering charges through their final holiday camp. Although Five spends most of the performance downstage, he has all the best lines delivered in a lisping, Glaswegian “crooked tongue”, sometimes over a tannoy, sometimes slurping tea and sometimes playing a concertina.

A concertina solo of “Someone To Watch Over Me” is one of example of the playfulness and theatricality that the director, Jeremy Herrin, and designer, Bunny Christie, bring to a drama positioned at the crossroads of existence. And the energetic cast of 11 dance, climb, and wear angel’s wings, to portray not only their own roles, but the plentiful biographies of the departed, each individually numbered as they pass through the Facility.

Luke Thallon, playing Guide Two, carries the interpersonal weight of the narrative, as he moves depressed Beatrice towards cherishing a happy memory over a sad and lonely one, and encourages 80-year-old Hirokazu, a thoughtful Togo Igawa, to celebrate the everyday and the contribution that he made to his wife’s happiness. “Will we be reunited?” asks Hirokazu. “Only in memory,” is Two’s blunt reply.

Two is the play’s most developed character, grappling with the question how you draw out somebody’s most precious memories and yet remain unaffected by what you are told.

After Life’s dismantling of familiar notions of the world to come continues with the Facility’s most challenging client, Obafemi, a young man who spent his adolescence trying not to be defined by his unnamed debilitating illness. “Is this it?” he shouts, pointing to the wall-to-ceiling filing cabinets and utilitarian, tubular chairs.

Danielle Henry’s down-to-earth Guide One tells him this is, indeed, it, with no heaven and no hell. Having made the most energetic entry to the Facility, descending a wall, Obafemi, kinetically played by Olatunji Ayofe, is the most reluctant to leave. He challenges Five to judge him as he would a rapist or a murderer, but receives the response “The only judgement that counts is your own.”

Sitting in the Dorfman’s tall, bunker-like space, while Jack Thorne’s adaptation of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film chisels away at traditional beliefs about the nature of eternal life is not entirely comfortable. But raising the possibility that we will in some way have to mourn for our own lives does add a sense of urgency to the here-and-now. “Legacy is the business of the living,” Five says. And we still have the precious opportunity to shape the material that they will have to build our legacy with. Or, as Beatrice puts it more succinctly, once she regained her joie de vivre through the acceptance of death: “Buck up.”


After Life is at the National Theatre (Dorfman Theatre), Upper Ground, South Bank, London SE1, until 7 August. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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