New End Theatre
If you passed a stranger sitting crying on the street, and your eyes met, and you walked on and did nothing, how would you feel? And if later you learned that the stranger had killed himself, how then?
This is the premise for Life After, Andrew Olins' new play about spirituality and the motives of altruism. Olins is a successful lawyer and so is his main character, Aaron (Russell Bentley), a fast-rising professional with handy family connections in the form of his wealthy father. One day as a young man, Aaron sees a young man sitting on the steps of the courthouse in a state of extreme distress; but eager to impress his hard-as-nails boss, he doesn't attempt to help him. Later he learns that the man, Simon, threw himself under a tube train after a court hearing in which the judge had ruled that the life support machine of his baby son, who had apparently no hope of surviving, should be turned. Could Aaron have helped him? Should he have tried?
This question haunts him for years afterwards; he gets married, has children, prospers in the firm, follows in the capitalist example of his boss Kit (David Burt). The play takes several nice little detours, and one of them is into Kit's past, as we see how he left his Sunderland home after the death of his father and shed his roots and his accent, and never again discovered the sense of natural kindness and community he had known in his hometown.
Another interesting little scene focuses on Aaron's decent best friend Harry (Daniel Gosling): his brother has just died, but the relevant bureaucratic officials are denying him the right to be buried in the family plot in the Jewish cemetery because he was, in their opinion, "not Jewish enough".
Olins wants to make clear that he's more interested in spirituality and general principles of goodness than in any one particular religion, and is happy to point out the hypocrisies that religions can carry. The spiritual element in Life After kicks in when Fiz Marcus, who we have seen at the start of the play as a senior female judge, reappears as The Judge in a more ultimate sense; the final pronouncer on the fate of souls in the afterlife. She wryly comments that "The Bible is really just one commandment obscured by an over-elaborate commentary" - that commandment being, of course, "Love thy neighbour as thyself", which pretty much covers how we ought to behave.
But in the real world it's not always so simple, and the play gives some intriguing scenarios as examples of this: Harry, a doctor, describes the judgement calls that have to be made when a heavily overweight patient is recommended for triple-bypass surgery that will keep them alive but not hugely improve their health, at massive cost to the system.
Olins also has Aaron and Harry argue compellingly about the motives of altruism - do we ever really do good for its own sake, or are we just after the pat on the back, the sense of self-satisfaction, as demonstrated when we help someone but then get annoyed with them if they don't thank us? This idea recurs towards the end when Aaron, struggling under the guilt surrounding the life he failed to save as a young man, wades into the legal case of another distraught young man whose baby is likely to be taken away from him. Is he doing the right thing by intervening in this complex case where the well-being of the child is a concern too? He doesn't really stop to consider this angle, so eager is he to do a good deed now that this opportunity has presented itself to him. The play cleverly suggests that this altruistic impulse was selfish too at heart, Aaron's way of trying to clear his conscience.
But there is a lot of superfluous content padding out this over-long play, which in the end achieves nothing more than to gently prod our consciences. Kit is given a sort of spiritual reckoning over his years of selfishness and greed, and asked to listen to the "whisper in his heart" telling him where he went wrong; a nice image, but nothing revelatory to us.
Life After at times feels steeped in Dickensian morality, but at the same time there is a frightening lack of interrogation about how Aaron himself has lived his life, what he has done with the wealth he has accumulated. In the twenty-year gap between the young man he fails to help and the one he tries to, there is much soul-searching, and many circular arguments with his eco-campaigner wife about how to live a good life (these scenes generally peter out rather than coming to any dramatic head). But there is no action to try to seriously redress his disproportionate position in society.
Olins is very good at the legal jargon, of course, and his characters speak with a fluid, educated lucidity that feels quite true to their world. And there are cheeky in-jokes about golf being good for marketing and networking, and about relationship managers at Coutts, which raised chuckles from those audience members in the know. But I don't think Olins has made enough effort to make a play which isn't just for lawyers.
Among the good cast, David Burt stands out as Kit, a sort of Gordon Gecko reincarnate; and Daniel Gosling is excellent as Harry, visibly aging and bowing under the weight of life as the play goes on. Russell Bentley as Aaron has not a huge amount to do, as his character's lack of development is an issue; he begins the play as a moderately good man (we are encouraged to think) and ends it as the same.
Nicola Eve Dobrowolski's spacey, non-naturalistic design is nice, Benet Catty's direction keeps the action moving along, as much as is possible, and tries to conjure in the small New End space the whirl of London and the sense of lives crossing one another. The play has essentially a good heart, but the whisper inside it of a better, more compelling story is too little heeded.
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury