Rory Keenan and Mariah Gale in Afterplay. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Afterplay by Brian Friel – Coronet Theatre, London

I’ve been putting this review off, for lots of reasons. Theatre is, amongst other things, what I do. Although I was well aware of the turbulent history of the stage in this country, interrupted by plagues and politics, it had never crossed my mind for a moment that I would find myself writing in a time when the theatres were closed. If audiences feel bereft, the effect on performers, writers, producers and all those for whom this is both life and livelihood is hard to imagine. But we are all in the boat, waiting for something that may happen in the unforeseeable future. In the meantime, I still have one last play to write about, from before the theatres closed. I went out on a high.

Afterplay, at the lovely Coronet Theatre, was a revival of Brian Friel’s one-act play imaging the aftermath of Chekhov. Two characters from different plays – Sonya from ‘Uncle Vanya’ and Andrey from ‘Three Sisters’ – meet by chance in a Moscow cafe in the 1920s, in a different time. after the Russian Revolution. They both sense something in common and together they compare and explore their experiences, before going their separate ways. It is a perfect miniature with the precision of writing and thinking that Brian Friel often produced – drama without a flourish, just clear-eyed, razor sharp character study. To describe this as ‘slight’, as one reviewer did, is to suggest that a short storey is a waste of time compared to a novel. Something about Chekhov’s endings, which leave everything and nothing possible, evidently nagged at Friel, as did these two characters. At the end of their respective plays, both are trapped – Sonya rejected and stuck on the estate, Andrey a disappointment to his sisters and himself.  Afterplay updates their stories, explaining their presence in Moscow and dismantling the fronts they have both erected for others.

The two performers, Mariah Gale and Rory Keenan, are well attuned to their parts. Keenan is a highly convincing combination, caught between the old pomposity and a genuine interest in Sonia. Gale is kind and vulnerable, without bluster to protect her, and ultimately just as desperate if not more so. Both performers are excellent – unshowy but entirely engaging, just as the play demands. The production by John Haidar is, was, finely paced and nuanced, bringing out the depth of writing experience that placed Friel in a position to follow up his hunch, that Chekhov’s characters had something more to tell us.

Friel does not suggest time would have solved Sonia’ or Andrey’s problems, or that anything would. He doesn’t provide a different ending for either – there is hope, but as always it’s in the future. But he provides a story, a coda that tells us that if nothing else both Andrey and Sonia are still alive, and that is worth our attention. Of course, like all theatre it tells us – the audience – that we are alive too. We will have to find other ways to remind ourselves of this, the only thing that matters, over the next few months.

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