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‘After Life’: A review

Julia Males reviews After Life.

If you could choose one memory to live with for the rest of your life, what would it be? 

Despite their name, Last Minute Productions has us in good hands with their production of After Life (23rd-26th November). 

The original play by Jack Thorne, based on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 film of the same name, debuted in 2021 in the National Theatre’s smallest space: the Dorfman Theatre. With this in mind, Lucas Ipkendanz and Daisy Gosal’s refreshingly intimate, coordinated and dreamlike adaptation was very much at home in the cosy black box of the Michael Pilch studio.

The play sees those entering the afterlife asked “If you could choose one memory to live with for the rest of your life, what would it be?”. A team of ‘guides’ then re-creates this memory and it is recorded for the ‘guided’, to replace all other memories. Much of the play situates itself in the interview process, as the characters, with varying resistance, talk through their possible choices. Inescapably, the lives and attitudes of the ‘guides’ begin to interfere.

The bittersweet humour in After Life catches you off guard. It is at once sharply funny and sad, a bit like a good Black Mirror episode, but without all the violence. 

Composer Rose Olver’s expert original score was  professional, cinematic and dazzling, and the fragile, wobbling, ambient undertones gave After Life a strong finesse. Tom Anderson’s lighting and tech operation was accurate and well-done. Sonya Luch’s set design was minimal and effective: several large plastic crates served multi-functionally as table, chair, and platform. 

Many of the characters do not interact with each other, so it is down to The ‘Guides’  – those here to make us feel at home in the after life – provide a linking constancy in the play. They are a strong group, with fraught dynamics: Emma Pollock (Five) was a formidable and amusing boss with a harmonica. Gracie Oddie-James (Four) was a hilarious, emotive scene-stealer, with a beautiful dynamic with father-like Nici Marks (Two). Siena Jackon Wolfe (Beatrice) and Agnes Halladay (Jill) were excellent character actors in particular.  The ‘guided’ – that is, the deceased who are asked to choose their memory – rose from the Pilch’s seating in a stunning directorial choice which reminds us of the unity between Thorne’s protagonists and his audience. The play presents memories as permeable, fragile  and fickle, making it difficult to pose the same question to ourselves.

In After Life, some are frustrated with the lack of judgement they receive, while others just want freedom from the central choice that dominates the play. Hero (Ariadne Si Suo) was a sweepingly sympathetic character, whose chosen memory  – a moment with his ethereal, ghostly wife (Avania Costello) – was fantastically sad:

“I don’t feel like she loves me at the moment. But she is my best friend… […] I’m a good man.”

The script leaves the play in a state of significant cheesiness. Spoiler alert: the guides bid good-bye to one of their own. There are hugs. Teary goodbyes, but they’re just inescapably overshadowed by the strongly emotive and more sympathetic characters that have just left.   We are tired of goodbyes by the time one of the Guides – Nici Marks’ Two –  tries to follow them, claiming his own best memory, as the guiding process itself. It feels overdone, and the script ends with a whimper. 

But Last Minute Productions rescued it from this fate. The adorable concluding sequence, in which a series of home-made videos are projected onto the Pilch’s back wall, turns the central question outwards, to the cast and crew themselves:

“If you could choose one memory to live with for the rest of your life, what would it be?”

They draw their memory on paper as we hear it. It was an ending that was both tender and grounded in realism, a welcome awakening from the stage hugs and hamminess that concluded the script.

After Life was an understated joy – a brilliant, bittersweet highlight of Week 7.

Image credit: Last Minute Productions

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