A Matter Of Life And Death – May 2007


Based on the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, adapted by Tom Morris and Emma Rice for the National Theatre

Directed by: Emma Rice

Company: Kneehigh

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Thursday 31st May 2007

I enjoyed Kneehigh’s Cymbeline so much, that I probably expected too much of this production. There was a lot to enjoy, but some of it was just plain dreary. Even so, I cried buckets, and felt happier when we came out, so I’d obviously had a good time.

First off, I tried out the audio devices for the first time here. Although we were in Row E, and I would have expected to hear most of it anyway, I wanted to find out what it was like. The headset is quite nifty, and certainly gave me a louder and clearer listening experience than without it. I found the pressure in my ear a bit uncomfortable, verging on painful, so I may have to investigate other options, but for now this will be a great way to get more out of the many plays we see. I also realised I would have to avoid wearing my pendant, as it kept clattering against the base of the headset. (Audio assisted experiences marked (headset) after seats.)

Before the start, the Olivier stage was bare. At the start, the panel at the back slid open (up and down), and the musicians were wheeled on, on a rectangular bandstand with a white arch at the back. The music was not particularly pleasant – rather wailing and loud – and it went on for far too long, in my view. As the music got under way, the whole stage became awash with the cast – cycling nurses stopping to light up a fag, hospital beds with pyjama-clad military patients, etc. Various people were reading aloud from books, and at one point there was a blaze in the middle of one of the beds – why? They’d already discovered torches under the bedclothes, and strung them up, and then the blaze, and then some fire buckets were brought on and set alight, and I have absolutely no idea why any of this was going on.

Then one of the pyjama men, dressed in a natty pair of star-patterned pj’s, started us off with the description of the universe. This was where it first started to engage me. As this was going on, another arching staircase is brought on, and Peter, the airmen who causes all the trouble, is being set up on it. Then we’re into the famous dialogue between Peter and June, and I cried and cried.

When Peter jumps out of the plane, he’s held aloft by wires for a while, and then comes down on a newly-cleared stage with a (photographic) beach scene plastered all over the back wall, and a couple of sand patches deposited on the floor. This was very evocative. He chats with a small girl, who’s playing in one of the sand patches, then along comes June, and the great romance gets underway.

Meanwhile, up in heaven, or at least the waiting room, Peter’s crewmate is waiting for him. The angels, all in nurses’ uniforms, are booking flyers in, but so far, there’s no sign of Peter. The chief accounting angel has no sooner explained that mistakes aren’t made, but that if one were all the alarms would go off, and that hasn’t happened for over 600 years, than the alarms go off, and it’s all hands to the pump to get that day’s soul receipts balanced.

This is where we’re introduced to Conductor 71. He’s a Norwegian, not that long deceased, who used to be an escape artist, but who suffered the most embarrassing death, as the trick that went wrong was the first one his mother had ever turned up to see. Judging by his completely unsuccessful attempts to vanish in front of everyone’s eyes, she was right to be unhappy about his chosen profession. He claims that the thick fog prevented him from snatching Peter’s soul from the jaws of life, and so he’s sent back down with orders to put things right.

Back on Earth, Peter and June are shown in a more sexually liberated 1940’s Britain than usual. They’re snuggled up together in bed, minus some clothes, and having a swinging time. Literally. The bed is swinging from side to side of the stage, and as Conductor 71 comes along, he show us his gymnastic skills by hanging on underneath. Eventually he emerges, and causes time to freeze, so he can speak to Peter. Spare company members hold the bed in place, while Peter tells Conductor 71 where to go.

The story unfolds as expected – the doctor at the hospital who’s in love with June tries to sort out Peter’s medical problems, and eventually gets caught up in helping him fight his case in heaven. All is resolved happily (yet still I cried!), and I left feeling cleansed. So, what else to say about the staging?

Wheeling the beds on and off was occasionally distracting, but overall, I felt the production settled down into a good rhythm. There was a lovely sub-plot with a wounded airman who’s obviously very affected by his experiences. He’s playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as staged by the doctor, and for ass’s ears, he’s got a couple of bedroom slippers strapped to his head. He hangs himself, which was distressing. Later, he sings a lovely song, which was actually a poem written by a deceased airman in the war; it’s quoted in the program notes.

While the doctor and June wait to see how Peter will go, they play ping-pong. This is done by having a ball on the end of a long pole, with one of the non-visible cast members moving it backwards and forwards between the players – great fun.  Finally, the bike crash was well done, with Douglas Hodge, the doctor, being lifted away from the wreckage.

Overall, I enjoyed this well enough, but wouldn’t particularly want to see it again.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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