Life & Culture

Theatre review: After Life

John Nathan finds a view of life after death rather disappointing


AFTER LIFE by Thorne, , Writer - Jack Thorne, adapted from the film by Hirokazu Kore-eda concept by Bunny Christie, Jeremy Herrin and Jack Thorne, Director - Jeremy Herrin, Designer - Bunny Christie, Lighting - Neil Austin, The National Theatre, Dorfman, 2021, Credit: Johan Persson/

I can think of few better ways to imagine life after death than remembering life before birth. This scepticism has never prevented enjoyment of a good afterlife yarn however. And on the face of it this one directed by Jeremy Herrin and adapted by Jack Thorne (of the triumphant Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stage show) from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s movie of 1998 has all the makings of a good one.

Designer Bunnie Christie elegantly evokes a staging post between life and afterlife. This is a place with an infinity of filing cabinets which reassuringly suggests that there is method beyond the seeming randomness of death.

This, we discover, is where we all end up before transitioning to the other side. But only for three days during which time our task is to identify the one memory that evokes the emotion which we want to carry for eternity. To this end it is the job of numbered guides such as Luke Thallon’s old — or is it public — school functionary Two to view the reels of someone’s life. The unedited rushes (as film folk call the immediate results of a shoot) aid the recreation of the appropriate memory.

June Watson’s elderly Beatrice is too worried about who is going too look after her cat to concentrate on what she wants to feel for the next gazillion years. But she is eventually coaxed into identifying the moment. It’s when she waltzed with the only man she ever loved, the brother she lived with , whom she nursed until his death.

Hirozaku aka Mr Boring (Togo Igawa), has little in his past to inspire him or his guides until Two realises that the newly deceased’s wife is also the love of Two’s life. This complicates the ethics of the whole operation, but nobody seems to much care.

This is afterlife sans judgment. Within all this trite sentimentality there is one genuinely dark moment when head guide Five (an enjoyably pugnacious Kevin McMonagle) is tasked with recreating the preferred memory of a stalker. But the amorality of this staging post is never explored. As in death, everyone in afterlife is equal which, depending on your point of view, might rather defeat the point of there being an alternative to nothingness.

Fatally the idea of a single emotion with which to (kind of) live for eternity is nothing more than an emotionally manipulative device. Sure, the notion invites us to trawl our memories to find the one true representative moment that makes sense of our own existence. But if Desert Island Discs is evidence of anything it’s that the quickest way to end up hating the thing you love is to be stuck with it and nothing else.

For a play that explores the meaning of human life and how it relates to the universe, you’re much better off with the forthcoming Donmar revival of Nick Payne’s two-hander Constellations which opens in the West End today. The idea that just one true moment represents a life forgets that its spice really is in its variety.







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