A Post-Mortem on the Past
Barney Norris's The Rest of Your Life
Bush Theatre | London
directed by Miranda Cromwell
It’s almost closing time. Nick (Waj Ali) is just about to cash up when Hannah (Rakie Ayola) walks in. She only wants a filter coffee and promises to be no bother, so he lets her stay while he closes up the café. However, Hannah has no intention of sitting quietly. What starts as seemingly innocent chitchat gives way to something more sinister; it transpires that Nick and Hannah are not quite the complete strangers we initially took them for.
Playwright Barney Norris has an impeccable ear for dialogue. The opening scenes of awkward strangers-getting-to-know-each-other small talk are funny and endearing. Hannah is charming and chatty, asking questions that overstep the mark a little, but Nick doesn’t mind too much – until she reveals she knows more about him than she should. His real name. His hometown. His past convictions. Ali does an excellent job of portraying Nick closing himself up, hiding his inner turmoil.
The intricacies of the crime and the events around it are never exposed, but we get the sense that there are many awful forces at play here. Nick gives us flashbacks, occasionally describing a person who violated him somehow and now, years later, still haunts him. These moments jar slightly with the rest of the play, too mysterious and under-explained to have any real significance. Hannah is also a bit of an enigma – an ex-undercover cop with a shady new employer who we never learn anything about. A certain amount of uncertainty here works with the central themes of secrecy and hidden truths, but at times the plot feels a little underdeveloped.
The relationship between the two characters is written exceptionally well. In this everyday scenario – a lone employee, a random customer, late at night – Norris plumbs the depths of human emotion by examining the enduring effects of mistakes and the inescapability of the past. Both Ali and Ayola give strong performances, showing flashes of fragility beneath the steely exterior of their new identities.
Bar FM, a karaoke bar across the road from the Bush Theatre, which is being refurbished, plays host to this performance. It is the perfect setting for this particular play, which director Miranda Cromwell makes the most of, creating an intimate setting where we could almost be eavesdroppers on the unexpected secrets of two ordinary-looking strangers. However, this is let down slightly by overdramatic lighting that zeroes in on any moment of high intensity in a rather pantomime-like way.
Projections of CCTV footage filmed at the venue itself are used to great effect, creating a sense of tension and self-consciousness, and mirrors the play’s way of trawling through the past. Norris uses two well-developed characters to tell a story and to raise political questions about identity and surveillance, but there aren’t enough satisfactory answers in this short 40-minute piece.
photo | ©Helen Murray