After Life review: A lightweight return from the National Theatre

·2-min read
After Life at the National Theatre (Johan Persson)
After Life at the National Theatre (Johan Persson)

If you had to re-experience a single memory for eternity after death, what would it be? That’s the premise of this wistful 100-minute fantasy, an odd choice to reopen the National. Adapted by the usually reliable Jack Thorne from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s cult 1998 Japanese film, its tone is downbeat and a little awkward. Jeremy Herrin’s production has a studied ordinariness that only occasionally aspires to the profound or the truly melancholic.

Conversely, the staging feels positively profligate, with a cast of 12 actors – one of them gets only one scene! – and a ravishing design by Bunny Christie. Not that the National’s Covid-depleted resources have exactly been squandered on a wall of filing cabinet drawers, some cherry blossom and a spacesuit. But it’s thrilling to see some bustle and flair after so many bare stages and monologues.

As that wall indicates, this posthumous realm is not heaven or hell but a bureaucracy, where the numbered staff (guides) get irritated with their charges (the guided) and each other. There’s a wise old Scot, a jobsworth and an exasperated middle-manager. But the main focus is on Luke Thallon’s fragile Two, who’s having a tough time mentoring Millicent Wong’s stroppy newcomer, Four.

Luke Thallon in After Life (Johan Persson)
Luke Thallon in After Life (Johan Persson)

Both of them are uncomfortable in their work: both of them break the rules. Their frustration in teasing out the memories of an elderly Japanese man (Togo Igawa), a teenager (Maddie Holliday) and forthright northern spinster Beatrice Killick (the wonderful June Watson) is palpable. The mystery of who the guides are is explained in an unexpected twist towards the end.

Thorne’s script delves lightly into the nature of memory and the importance of the everyday, but mostly it’s a workplace comedy with hugely elastic parameters. The five guides have a week to process 20-odd memories, watching videotapes of past lives and agonizing over the precise shade of a 1940s red dress or the taste of a 1980s pasta salad. This seems labour intensive, given international death rates. There are whimsical touches throughout: Kevin McMonagle’s mocking supervisor, Five, plays a squeezebox. The guides source their tissue-paper cherry blossom from “three little ladies in Northampton”. Thallon’s Two had a client who believed angels have no saliva.

Thallon, who came to prominence in Albion at the Almeida and stole a chunk of Present Laughter from Andrew Scott at the Old Vic, is as subtle and watchable as ever. Wong, a relative newcomer, is promising. June Watson overdoes her character’s stridency but nevertheless gives the piece emotional ballast. Herrin’s staging, a co-production with Headlong, is fluent and pleasing. It just feels a bit light, a bit airy-fairy, a bit meh, frankly, for these times and for the reopening of one of our major cultural institutions.

To 7 Aug, nationaltheatre.org.uk

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