Challenges Aplenty Onstage in London, With Some Fun Along the Way

LONDON — Intimations of mortality have weighed heavily on our minds during the pandemic, so what better work to reanimate the National T...

LONDON — Intimations of mortality have weighed heavily on our minds during the pandemic, so what better work to reanimate the National Theater than “After Life,” a play set in a mysterious space between this world and the next?

The director Jeremy Herrin’s often startling production, staged in conjunction with the theater company Headlong, is the first in the National’s smallest auditorium, the Dorfman, for some 15 months, and has had its run extended to Aug. 7.

The source material is an acclaimed 1998 film of the same name from the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, here adapted by the prolific Jack Thorne, of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” renown.

The play is thematically challenging material to offer audiences recently well acquainted with the possibility of illness, or worse. And yet the abiding achievement of Herrin and his expert design team, headed by the Tony winners Bunny Christie (sets and costumes) and Neil Austin (lighting), is the delicacy they bring to what could be fairly heavy going. You’re aware throughout of the high stakes involved for the so-called “guided,” who are asked to select a single memory to take with them for eternity into the afterlife.

The takeaway from an evening at “After Life,” though, is the visual wit and delight of a stage dominated by filing cabinets reaching to the ceiling that allows for a sudden cascade of falling petals and permits one conversation to occur with the characters perched halfway up the back wall.

The cast includes the veteran June Watson in robust form as an anxious woman ceaselessly fretting about her cat and the fast-rising Luke Thallon as a tremulous guide left to navigate a dreamscape that has a fablelike quality, even if the writing feels not quite fully developed and could deliver greater emotional force.

The demands placed upon audiences are increased, and so are the rewards, across town at the Hampstead Theater. The north London playhouse has reopened after five months with “The Death of a Black Man,” a play that was originally scheduled last year as part of a 60th-anniversary series of revivals of titles first seen there.

Premiered in 1975, the three-character drama offers a rare glimpse of the work of Alfred Fagon, a Jamaican-born writer and actor who died of a heart attack in London in 1986, age 49. Dawn Walton’s expert production, on view through July 10, leaves no doubt as to what was lost with Fagon’s premature death, even as it hints at the resonance for today of a play steeped in the specifics of the 1970s.

Mention is made of the film “Last Tango in Paris” and of Princess Anne’s looming marriage to Captain Mark Phillips, and we hear pulsating snatches of “The Harder They Come,” the reggae classic from the 1972 film. But the core of the play, set in a Chelsea flat inhabited by 18-year-old Shakie (Nickcolia King-N’da), lies in what sort of future awaits this budding entrepreneur and the 30-year-old woman, Jackie (the astonishing Natalie Simpson), with whom he has a child and who has arrived back in his life after a two-year absence.

The pair are joined before long by a political firebrand, Stumpie (a charismatic Toyin Omari-Kinch), who promises a better life for them all in “mother Africa” and doesn’t believe in right or wrong, only the need to “just grab what you can get.” Much of the unabashedly talky proceedings anticipate the Black Lives Matter movement, while the title reaches beyond an explicit reference to the death of Shakie’s father to connect with audiences today who, after the murder of George Floyd and others, understand the reality of such deaths all too well. (A namecheck is given to the divisive politician of the age, Enoch Powell, whose modern-day equivalents are easily found.)

The plotting carries distinct echoes of Harold Pinter in its reversals of power and authority, and Simpson wears Jackie’s bravura like a shield, all the while falling to pieces internally. At one point, Walton has her actors stare down the audience directly as if daring them to acknowledge the play’s increasingly nihilistic landscape head-on as something we cannot help but understand and even share. It’s to this fierce production’s credit that you cannot look away.

Weightiness, it would seem, is a London theatrical constant just now, even when it misfires, as in the case of Amy Berryman’s “Walden,” a worthy but synthetic sibling-relationship drama set against an ecowarrior backdrop that struggles to sound authentic. (That play finished its limited run at the Harold Pinter Theater on June 12.)

Those in search of frothier fare will alight with pleasure on “Shaw Shorts,” two one-acts at the always-inviting Orange Tree Theater in Richmond, west London, that can be booked separately or together through June 26, depending how much time potentially Covid-skittish audiences want to spend in an auditorium.

The pairing of “How He Lied to Her Husband” and “Overruled” reminds us of the subversive morality of a playwright eyeing the amorous goings-on among a sector of society who — guess what? — pass their time going to Shaw plays. In a cheeky nod toward himself, Shaw has the lovers in his 1904 “How He Lied to Her Husband” compare themselves to characters in his earlier and better-known “Candida,” which it seems these adulterers have seen.

In the polygamy-minded “Overruled” (1912), the ever-breezy Mrs. Lunn (the able Dorothea Myer-Bennett) as good as offers her husband to another woman, leaving the male half of the other couple (played by Jordan Mifsúd) to expound on the boredom inherent in a happy marriage. The director, Paul Miller, runs the Orange Tree and has long included Shaw in an eclectic lineup of writers that extends to the contemporary as well.

The result is a two-part bagatelle that serves for now as a starter in advance of heavier fare to come. These may be difficult times, but there’s room among the thematically fearsome for some fun, too.

After Life. Directed by Jeremy Herrin. National Theater, through Aug. 7.

The Death of a Black Man. Directed by Dawn Walton. Hampstead Theater, through July 10.

Shaw Shorts. Directed by Paul Miller. Orange Tree Theater, through June 26.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Challenges Aplenty Onstage in London, With Some Fun Along the Way
Challenges Aplenty Onstage in London, With Some Fun Along the Way
Newsrust - US Top News
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