Review for Life After Life; 13th October 2018; Hope Street Theatre
‘Meet Jimmy and Eric on a journey towards their final destination. They share the same room but have different attitudes towards the biggest lie we tell ourselves. See their struggles, hear their stories and enjoy this heart felt comedy drama…’
The initial introduction to this play on Likeminded Productions’ website offers an insight into the world of this play and essentially sets out an objective for itself as to what the play is looking to achieve. So, does Life After Life explore the attitudes and morality of Jimmy and Eric, our two terminal protagonists? In a nutshell, not entirely… But close.
The piece starts with an unannounced character standing up from the audience and delivering a short monologue in a Ward Manager style to bring the audience into the world of the play. This has success initially and the formality of her delivery really draws the audience into the world of the hospital… That is until a cheap piece of swearing and a joke at the audiences’ expense bursts the bubble of a professional reality she has just tried to create. Would have been great in a farcical comedy that looks at the same issues. But for a piece that is billed as a drama – albeit a comedy, it’s just one step too far at pushing a laugh out of the audience early on.
The world is then rebuilt in a somewhat successful manner, the protagonist: Jimmy is helped onto the stage by Laura, the nurse for the ward, and it is immediately apparent that he is suffering from a very serious illness – presumably cancer, given that he has no hair or eyebrows (which shows the commitment that Peter Durr i.e. Jimmy has gone to for this role). Between this and the realistic props and hospital beds set out across the stage, this really builds and reinforces the world in which this piece will be set which goes to show the commitment the cast and the director have gone to (quite successfully), to create this morbid and cold world.
The first act mainly focusses on building the relationship between Jimmy – our cancer-stricken protagonist – and Eric, the other patient who shares the ward with Jimmy. This is achieved pretty well through the use of jokes at the other characters expense and petty arguments that makes the relationship feel from the same ilk of the Odd Couple. The relationship builds and develops quite nicely with it culminating in a pretty powerful, if somewhat out of the blue monologue from Jimmy.
My initial concern for the believability of the piece became apparent when I noticed that Eric seemed to be moving almost completely free of pain and with no physical symptoms to indicate he had anything wrong with him. Whereas Jimmy was very clearly suffering with a serious illness (as I said, I’m presuming cancer until now as it has not yet been addressed directly) and can barely stand up unaided. I’m assuming the explanation to this lack of symptoms comes from the fact that Eric is in fact a figment of Jimmy’s imagination and doesn’t actually exist (this is revealed at the end of Act I) which is bloody well confusing, considering they have a game of chess in which Eric even wins.. Unless this is also happening in Jimmy’s mind and not in reality?
My main issue from this play is the point I have just highlighted. Eric isn’t real. After having a think about this, my interpretation of Eric being Jimmy’s imaginary friend is that by creating Eric, Jimmy has formed a coping mechanism of some sort. This is, I guess, a stab at raising the stakes in the piece and highlighting how isolated Jimmy is in his current state. However, it doesn’t really do anything to the plot and if anything, hinders the potential for drawing upon the morality of two separate characters rather than just the one, instead of having Eric as an angel on the shoulder style character, which he doesn’t really achieve anyway. This is the only reason I can think of that begins to justify why Eric is imaginary.
The second act was a much-improved piece of work as a whole and we see a lot more of the nurse character given now that Eric has vanished with the reveal he is in fact not non-existent. There is more of a structure and a clearer plot in this act as it is much more apparent that Jimmy is struggling with his own morality as his condition begins to seriously deteriorate. The beginning of the second act was probably the lowest point of the performance for me however, as Bob Towers (Eric) gives a monologue on the sequences and stages of a life, in which he is seemingly reading his lines from a monitor in the tech. box. This is acceptable in certain circumstances when giving a lengthy monologue, however this seriously should have been addressed as it did nothing but unnerve the audience members that noticed it. And there was a fair few who did so.
The piece ended on a high though, with Jimmy’s illness finally getting the better of him towards the end and a death scene that was simply stunning for all of the right reasons. The delirious ramblings of Jimmy, coupled with the quietly composed grief of Nurse Laura juxtapose excellently and there is nothing for the audience to do except watch as a seriously ill man that they have come to know, passes on into death. This scene is nothing short of brilliant and the empathetic nature taken by the director, Christopher Woodward, highlights how both himself and his actors have approached this extremely sensitive scene with care and caution, yet still providing the audience with a punch to the gut with a very hard-hitting death scene.
Laura, played by Caitlyn Bradley is the nurse character that brings a warmness to what is a cold and isolated room. Caitlyn offers a different form of relationship between her character and Jimmy and one almost gets the sense that there is a father-daughter relationship almost between the two characters that is closer than just nurse and patient.
Bob Towers, who plays Eric, makes a very good attempt at bringing to life a character that never had a life in the first place. My only criticism though is that I got the sense that the words coming out of his mouth were very scripted. In other words, he hadn’t taken ownership of the character he had created and this showed in the character’s sometimes puzzling and clunky reactions and delivery of lines.
Peter Durr, who plays Jimmy, is the stand out performer in this piece and given that he is the main character, this makes sense. His ability to carry the play forward whilst also playing a slowly deteriorating, terminally ill patient is exceptional and really gives credence to how well developed his character is. His delivery has a massive range and his natural tone can go from heartfelt and sincere to cold and aggressive very quickly.
Overall, this is a piece that has massive potential and the ability to develop into a very strong piece of theatre. However, I do think the overall story of the play needs refining and the writer: Ashley Ali, may need to have a think about the overall journey of the text and what it is she is trying to convey. So, while there is room for improvement, there are still some nice pieces of humanity captured within the essence of the script by the director and the cast.
TheatRevolt Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Gary Plunkett