A Little Life | Theatre Review
I decided to spend £90 – a bargain by West End standards – on front-row seats to A Little Life. I had a brilliant view, which in this play is both an honour and an absolute horror. Going to see A Little Life on stage was a decision I made without question of price, trigger warnings or time. But I wouldn’t recommend others do the same if there are any tickets left.
It is a 3-hour, 40 minutes play – which feels like 2 hours – of pure trauma. Not only for the lead – James Norton who plays Jude St. Francis – but also the audience and most of the other cast as well.
If you are sensitive, easy to anger, emotional or simply have feelings I would recommend extreme caution when going to see this play. Tissues, the ability to look away and hold back guttural sobs is a must.
A Little Life is the stage adaptation of the book of the same name by Hanya Yanigahara. I’ve had this book on my to-be-read list for the last five years, and I used the ticket purchase as a reason to finally read it.
It is 700+ pages of trauma porn. I can’t say I enjoyed it – I don’t think ‘enjoy’ is a verb that should come close to this novel – however, it was harrowing.
Unlike most people on TikTok, I didn’t cry. At first, I wondered if I was soulless for not crying, but after seeing the play I realise I was just protecting myself when reading the book by holding back from ‘loving’ the characters.
When you see the production, starring James Norton, Luke Thompson and Omari Douglas, among many other brilliant actors, you can’t help but connect with the characters.
A Little Life Cast and Characters
Omari Douglas as JB is hilarious and then awful in the same breath, in a blink-and-you-miss-it fashion. Luke Thompson as Willem is lovable and intensely protective but also incredibly frustrating. But by the end, you desperately want to hug him and never let him go.
Elliot Cowan who plays all three of the worst men in existence – Caleb, Father Luke and Dr Traylor – is menacingly evil, both in his physicality as the characters and in his use of tone. I would cross the street if I ever saw this actor in public because I can never unsee what he did in this role.
It was astonishing acting across the board. In particular, James Norton as Jude St. Francis threw everything into the production. I’ve never seen a more raw, vulnerable, brave performance from anyone.
The element of nudity in A Little Life is more than an ‘element’, it is horrifically featured and it is constant. For those people who bought a ticket just to see James Norton naked, you’ll regret it. It’s scarring, not because of him or his physical body, but because of what he has to do on the stage whilst completely without clothing. I spent more time staring at my feet and blinking back tears than watching his performance during those scenes.
How he performs every night, particularly as he’s on stage for the entire production, is beyond me. The standing ovation at the end of the night was more than deserved.
A Little Life Final Thoughts
I can’t even put into words how I feel about this production. After the first act finished – with no warning but the stage hand walking on to clear glasses whilst the cast poured themselves massive glasses of wine – I just sat frozen in my chair.
Everyone else got up to go to the toilet and get ice cream and I could not move.
There was a genuine audible gasp from the audience when the ‘final moment’ of the first act happened. No spoilers but it was a heavy trigger warning moment.
I shook myself off, went for a brief walk around the theatre – admittedly very pretty – and then re-took my seat, nervous about what was going to happen next.
By the end of the second act, I was biting my lip, desperately trying not to cry and itching to stand up and clap. I also wanted to shout ‘stop coughing’ as the cough brigade was clearly triggered by the ice cream during the interval and the second act was a cacophony of coughs from start to finish. Very distracting when the intense scenes between Willem and Jude were occurring.
Luke Thompson, James Norton and Elliot Cowan gave the bravest performances on stage possible, and I don’t know how they are able to do this performance for 3 months straight. I think they’ll have earned a 6-month sabbatical once it’s through, with lots of therapy, hopefully, lots of happy things and maybe a nice easy Shakespeare comedy when they’re ready to return.
In terms of the production and the play itself, it’s hard to give it a rating. I felt more from watching this play than any other I’ve ever seen, but it’s not one I would recommend others go and watch. It’s harrowing, horrific, and utterly mesmerising. But the idea of watching it again, or going with friends or family to witness it is completely wrong.
Very strange. Very dark. Very moving. Never again. But worth £90 and more entirely.