After Life – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Jack Thorne

Director: Jeremy Herrin

Among its many other purposes, theatre is a collective act of memory, of audience, cast and crew creating a series of moments that afterwards (advances in digital theatre aside) will exist only in the remembrances of those present. Jack Thorne’s new play After Life, which reopens the Dorfman at the National Theatre, focuses on the creation, retention and selection of memory as a conscious act in which the characters try to recapture a happy feeling from their past.

Every Monday a new batch of the ‘Guided’ arrives to be processed, spending the week deciding on the memory they want to live in forever and take with them to the next stage before having it recreated for them in precise detail by their ‘Guide’ on Saturday. But this week something is different; the Guided are questioning the process and experienced Guide Two finds himself unexpectedly troubled by one of his clients.

Based on a film by Hirokazu Kore-eda and a concept co-created by designer Bunny Christie, Director Jeremy Herrin and Thorne, After Life takes a Kafka-esque faceless institution dominated by control, process and routine, peopled by weary but ever-professional administrators and slowly introduces shades of empathy and warmth that meaningfully disrupt the lives of the Guides as they coax their latest intake through the week.

Within the story, the play considers a variety of responses to what memory can and should be as each of member of the Guided confronts their lives, grappling with the idea that life can be more or less than the sum of its parts, that pain and regret are just as vital as happiness, and that individual memories can be generic, false or vague. This challenges the skill of the Guides but asks whether experiences can be distilled into a single ‘lost’ moment and their effect on behaviour in the years since.

If that all sounds overly existential then Headlong’s entertaining production choices tie it all together with a multi-layered set design from Christie who uses floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets that conceal doors and steps, while the municipal blandness of the Guides’ uniforms and green-grey teacups has a 1960s utilitarian feel that underline the drab ordinariness of this hinterland office between worlds.

But everything comes alive as the memories are recreated in a charming montage that is full of fantasy, briefly transforming Christie’s slate-grey space with colour and wistful joy – a moment that results in a tender finale for the characters who struggle most. Herrin keeps things moving swiftly across this 1-hour and 35-minute production with seamless and fluid scene changes that use two-thirds of the Dorfman floor while distorting video effects by Max Spielbichier are used sparingly to mark changes of direction.

With several memorable performances already on his CV, Luke Thallon is quietly becoming a star and anchors After Life as the troubled Two whose efficiency is slowly eroded by the events of the play. Thallon suggests a man losing control but rediscovering the humanity he once sacrificed for the job. His relationship with June Watson’s curmudgeonly Beatrice is a delight and Watson builds her character’s trajectory so well that her final moments are both heart-warming and very touching.

Kevin McMonagle adds just the right balance of comedy as announcer ‘Five’ who keeps the guests and his colleagues in line while Millicent Wong as trainee Guide ‘Four’, Togo Igawa’s Hirokazu, who cannot find the right memory, and Olatunji Ayofe’s Obafemi, who refuses to engage in the process at all, add texture as a group trying to define themselves in different ways.

‘We’re not interested in absolute truth, we’re interested in memory’ the Guides stress and Thorne’s play is not concerned with happy endings as such but with finding one moment of comfort or nostalgia to make it all worthwhile. After Life is certainly worthwhile and ensures that the National Theatre’s return is a memorable one.

Runs until 7 August 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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