“Sorry for your loss,” says Guide Five (Kevin McMonagle), a towering filing cabinet illuminated behind him. Far from an angel, he commands a team of uniformed officials carrying bundles of records. Their task, he goes on to explain, is to guide those who have recently passed away into making a decision in response to the following: which one memory from your life would you choose to spend eternity in?
It should be no surprise to seasoned theatregoers that Jack Thorne (of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and A Christmas Carol fame) is the playwright exploring that spiritual question, adapting the story from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1999 film of the same name. He is no stranger to the magical and the otherworldly, and so his script is gorgeous and beautifully descriptive. Even though the memories recited by the curious collective (including June Watson’s endearing cat-lover Beatrice Killick) are later performed by the team, such is the nature of his prose that we already have an image in our heads the first time they are described by a particular character. I suppose that’s part of what makes Jeremy Herrin’s direction so moving and powerful when it is him who is tasked with bringing the memories to life. When combined with the endearing performances of a phenomenal cast, we are taken aback at how our imagination is depicted on the stage, just like the characters themselves. If one wanted to indulge oneself in a cliché, then one could simply describe it as the magic of theatre.
And this is further complemented by the fascinating set design from Bunny Christie, whose creativity has already seen us explore the brilliant mind of Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and the whimsical setting of the Bridge Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In After Life, the filing cabinet moves and lights up to display key information as the play progresses. They literally support our guides, and even though we are musing on the concept of death while watching this production, Christie does well to focus on the light. It boasts an extraordinary collection of props, too. Nostalgia and reminiscence, we learn, are often shared experiences which can affect others just as much as they can the person looking back – not least, in this instance, the guides.
We see it in our protagonist, Guide Two (Luke Thallon), who soon realises that he has a personal connection to one of the people who has arrived in the mysterious office that week. He must not influence that individual’s decision – which is theirs and theirs alone – yet when it comes to memories, it’s hard to explore them without feeling something.
That’s what After Life encourages us to do: it invites us to engage with sentimentality, to feel every emotion. It looks forward to eternity, and back on lives lived and what came before. It begins and ends with several pairs of shoes belonging to different characters – a proper full circle – and at the play’s conclusion, we certainly feel like we’ve lived in them.
After Life is now playing in the Dorfman Theatre until 7 August.
Production Images: Johan Persson.