a breathtaking stage version of the classic Japanese film

Jack Thorne’s mind-blowing version of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s magical realistic drama is the best show to put on in London since the pandemic

We haven’t rated a theater performance since March of last year. It didn’t look good in the fall, when everyone who did manage to open a play was just doing their best against impossible odds, and even a few weeks ago it felt a bit bad for the very first shows.

But we were always going to come back to the stars and maybe it’s fitting that we do with Jack Thorne’s miraculous ‘After Life’, which isn’t a new piece of Covid-era programming, but the first big one. show canceled from 2020 to make its late debut.

It’s also nice to start off with a bang: “After Life” is an absolutely stunning piece, literally the best thing I’ve seen in at least a year. I was incredibly moved by this, especially his last third crying. But I was probably even more moved when I remembered what it was like to see a truly transcendent play – it’s been a very long time.

Co-produced by the dynamic theater company Headlong, “After Life” is a stage version of the cult film of the same name by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda from 1998. I guess a very simplistic way of looking at it is like a British remake, well. that this version is intentionally opaque as to the nationality of its characters.

The principle is simple and captivating. It’s Monday and we are… somewhere. Represented by the set of designer and co-creator Bunny Christie – a gargantuan impressionist wall of filing cabinets – “After Life” takes place in a stage between death and all that comes after. Here, the newly deceased have until Saturday to decide on a single memory they wish to be physically recreated to take with them – the implication being that is all that will be left of them after that.

We meet a lot of these guests, but in reality the story is that of the staff: working hard and emotionally invested in their jobs, they seem like compassionate care home workers. It is only as the play progresses that it becomes apparent that they are also ordinary, dead people – even though they have found themselves unable to move on.

The plot essentially revolves around Luke Thallon’s sensitive perfectionist Two (his official name, though we learn that he’s actually Charlie) and a handful of relationships he builds at the staging post. The first is with her colleague, Four (Millicent Wong), a teenage girl – meaning she was a teenager when she died – who gets angry at work and struggles to control her emotions, lets her anger infiltrate his work. The second is with Beatrice (June Watson), a deceased old lady who struggles to come to terms with her complicated feelings for her late brother. And the third is with Hirokazu (Togo Igawa), an elderly man with whom Charlie realizes he has an unexpected – and technically illegal, according to the rules of the tracking station – connection with the real world.

Directed with great sensitivity by Jeremy Herrin and tenderly performed, “After Life” is a magical and compassionate piece of realism that is filled with growing emotions as its characters strive to find the unique memory they will take home with them. infinite.

For older guests, the week is a reckoning with the inherently flawed nature of their lives: Hirokazu must come to terms with the fact that his marriage just went well; Beatrice must find a level of peace with feelings for a brother she has repressed all her life. For younger people, it’s radically different: they haven’t lived long enough to live life like adults. Thirteen-year-old Jill (Maddie Holliday) kindly brings up the memory of a trip to Euro Disney. Obafemi (Olatunji Ayofe), 21, who has spent the last seven years of his life terminally ill, is too angry to even engage with what is asked of him.

Though backed by slightly absurd humor, “After Life” is a moving and serious reflection on what constitutes a life. It’s important to point out that this remains Kore-eda’s vision: the premise was entirely his, and while Thorne tweaked many details, the plot shape is pretty much the same. But it’s a beautiful and sympathetic adaptation, filled with care and bittersweet reflection. Inevitably, part of its power is that it makes you contemplate what you would take with you.

I think the story gains something special from the overtly artificiality of the theater: Jeremy Herrin’s tight, sparse production and Christie’s abstract setting streamline and intensify the story, removing the film’s slight distraction from naturalism. There is great work from the creative team, especially Shelley Maxwell’s well-drilled movement, so lively that you’ll rarely notice the cast standing at a safe distance from each other.

It is built on an extremely theatrical and moving final stage, where the last precious memories are reconstructed in a dreamlike DIY cascade of primitive happiness. “The magic of After Life comes from its pure belief that life itself is magic.

Regardless of what happens on June 21, ‘After Life’ will remain socially distanced for the remainder of its run, meaning it’s already sold out. However, all is not lost – new tickets for the following week will go on sale at noon every Friday of the race, and on June 25, tickets will go on sale for a final extension, until August 7. .

Marie A. Evans