Life After Life, Lyttleton Loft, London

A modest work of humanising monsters

Rhoda Koenig
Saturday 08 February 2014 04:07
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Valerie, a churchgoer, wears sensible clothes; her manner is brisk and genteel. Frank, sprawling in loose sports clothes, has floppy hair and grins a lot. Edgar, his feet on a needlepoint hassock, works a piece of embroidery.

They and three other men would seem to have nothing in common, but each has served time in prison for murder. Two are still there, trying to stay mentally and physically alive. The rest tell us how they have fared since their release. They don't ask for sympathy, but sometimes they get it.

Life After Life is not fiction. It is based on interviews from the book of the same name by the late Tony Parker, selected and arranged by the director, Paul Jepson. The killers sit before a wall (set design by Rachel Blues) that illustrates the idea of tentatively starting again: its wallpaper pattern, suggestive of bars, is daubed partway across with paint samples, and the rest of it is painted a bright spring green.

Some of the stories, though, make the idea of a fresh start impossible. Philip, enraged by the crying and bedwetting of the baby he always resented ("I could tell by the way he looked at me that he didn't like me'') has knocked him against the wall, poured boiling water over him, and thrown him in the fire.

Boyish Frank ("I was always happy-go-lucky") tells a nightmarish story of finding himself on a dark road, knowing he has done something terrible but not what it is, and wandering through fields until he was picked up by the police. "They said I was there in that town on that date, they could prove it, so it must have been'' – in the case of the little girl, as well as the little boy.

As the crimes themselves are blurry for some, so are much of their lives. Edgar, nearly 80, can't remember where or when he was born, or how many brothers or sisters he had, but he does know he is the victim of bad luck.

At first one sees his point. It was unfortunate that he gave his termagant wife "a little push'' in self-defence as he drove near the edge of a cliff in a van with faulty doors. He is such a well-spoken old gentleman, so even-tempered and polite. Then we hear of the "young women" with whom he has since had "associations", of their hysteria and lies, of his bit of bad luck with the bottle that broke accidentally.

The acting has a depth and reality to match the terrible confessions, especially that of John Woodvine as the infuriatingly placid Edgar and William Osbourne as Frank.

Nearly all make us feel that what was done to them when young was nearly as bad as what they did, and show us what a miracle it is that more of us don't explode when subjected to similar pressures.

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