A Matter Of Life And Death @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Douglas Hodge
Lyndsey Marshal
Tristan Sturrock
Dorothy Atkinson
Jamie Bradley
Dan Canham
Fiona Chivers
Meryl Fernandes
Gisli orn Gardarsson
Thomas Goodridge
Tamsin Griffin

directed by
Emma Rice
Its worth my pointing out at the start that the 1946 Powell and Pressburger film, on which this production is based, is one of my all time favourites. So I suppose I was always going to be difficult to please with this new stage adaptation of the film by Emma Rices Kneehigh theatre company.

Commissioned to aid relations between the English and the Americans, the film told the story of Peter, a RAF pilot who we meet minutes before he is about to bail out of his burning plane without a parachute. He knows death is imminent, as does June, the American radio operator with whom he shares what he thinks are his last words.

But he doesnt die. Due to an administrative cock-up in heaven – the other-worldly ‘conductor’ assigned to collect him gets lost in the fog – he is granted more time on earth, during which he manages to meet June and to fall in love with her. As well as being one of British cinema’s most enduring love stories, visually the film was also incredibly inventive, with heaven famously being rendered in rich black and white. So I was intrigued to see how all this would translate to the stage.

The answer is: not particularly well. Kneehigh are an exciting company, no question about it, and when on form, are capable of producing exciting, enchanting theatre. But here their techniques feel heavy-handed and over-used: the aerial stuntwork, the creatively cluttered stages, and Stu Barkers genre-hopping musical accompaniment – these things all worked superbly in a piece such as Nights At The Circus where they suited the source material, but here they feel out of place and often threaten to overpower the narrative.

There’s just too much going on. Nurses cycle this way and that, hospital beds overtake the stage and the famous heavenly staircase is replaced by a sort of arched climbing frame contraption. The songs also feel very out of place.

There are some moments of genuine visual invention, a slow-motion ping-pong game made me chuckle, as did their recreation of the famous camera obscura scene, but more often then not the piece felt overly noisy and messy and swamped with ar too much stuff.

Conductor 71, depicted as a French aristo in the film, is here played as a Norwegian escapologist by Gsli rn Gardarsson (the stage aerialist and founder of Icelands Vesturport Theatre). But, though Gardarsson was a delight in Circus, in this production his characters comic interjections, his constant clowning, is simply rather jarring.

Of the remaining cast, Douglas Hodge stands out, maintaining a stoic dignity as the doctor who doesnt let his soft-spot for June prevent him from doing all he can to help Peter. Tristan Sturrock and Lyndsey Marshal do their best as the besotted couple, but are often overwhelmed by the production’s excessive tendencies.

In the final scenes, where Peter ends up in heavens version of an appeal court, to argue that having fallen in love during the extra time on earth mistakenly awarded to him he deserves to stay alive, he is now confronted, in Rices staging, not only by his dead father, but by the victims of the Coventry and Dresden bombings.

The production loads these closing scenes with a sense of despair over the futility and indiscriminate barbarity of all war. And while there is a degree of power to the way this is done, it is undermined by having Junes last emotive plea for Peter reduced to a physical scramble over a row of floating hospital beds.

Though visually striking in places, Kneehighs approach simply doesnt work with the material here. This, coupled with the decision to perform the production without an interval (it runs to around two hours and ten minutes), makes it very hard to derive much pleasure from the piece. A real disappointment.

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