‘Surprisingly beautiful’: AFTER LIFE – National Theatre ★★★★

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Dorfman, National Theatre – until 7 August 2021

The afterlife is out of fashion, at least in traditional religious forms – harps and angels, heaven and hell, reincarnation or squads of waiting virgins, all start to seem as embarrassingly dated as Valhalla. But most unfashionable of all are the ancient Christian notions of Purgatory – where suffering purges you of sin – and the other waiting-room option, Limbo (virtuous pagans and unbaptised babies).

All the same, the idea is always gripping, and attempts get made on it: this one by Jack Thorne, based on a Japanese film by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, begins with a crashing boom of doom and puts the newly dead in a bleak office block lined with filing cabinets (Bunny Guinness’ designs throw a lot of good tricks at us). They are greeted by a senior manager and questioned in turn by his staffers about their most meaningful and precious memory.

One could reflect (I did for a few intrigued minutes) that it is indeed Purgatory to be not only dead but processed by a pinstriped chap with a gleaming tie-pin and his rabble of weary, sometimes bickering aides whose attempts at authority reminded me at times of a group of disaffected McKinsey or Deloitte interns.

Luckily, their first clients tend to feel this too, June Watson’s magnificent nonagenarian Mrs Killick worried about her cat, Olatunji Ayofe as a stroppy black lad who doesn’t get it at all, and Togo Igawa – a distinguished, senior after a stellar career – unable think of any precious memories at all. But you have to come out with one, and allow the staff to ‘recreate’ that memory with various props  because otherwise you can’t happily “pass on” to wherever you go next. And might have to join the staff here, processing the next few lots, until you work things out.

I feared sentimentality at “May your memories make you fly”. But Thorne, who gave us that glorious Christmas Carol at the Young Vic and added depth onstage to JK Rowling’s more plodding fantasy, is no fool. The  stresses, inhibitions and character-flaws of the dead candidates – and their griefs, Mrs Killick’s especially – draw you in. And around in the little Dorfman I could actually feel people wondering what their own memory would be (there’s an opportunity to record them, they run before the start). It’s not a bad exercise.

Sometimes the ‘guides’ seem to be a cross between social workers and a frazzled am-dram group with prop problems,  but they too become distinct and interesting.   Philosophically ideas drift through as it progresses, – `’memory can free you or imprison you” .  A good plot line develops (a bit late, after the bit halfway through where you risk drifting away) . And with that, it  becomes clear that sometimes we can redeem each other.

Where Jeremy Herrin directs and Bunny Christie designs, you expect something pretty damn theatrical before it ends, and this we get.  No spoilers, but it’s surprisingly beautiful.  And after a year of  shared griefs and doubts and fears and hopes, it’s an honourable human document. If there are more tickets after the distancing rule ends (none now), worth grabbing one.  Anywhere, like I did up in the gods.    All the sightlines are fine..

Box office Nationaltheatre.org.uk.     To 7 August

Rating four  .

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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