A Matter of Life and Death

Based on the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, adapted by Emma Rice and Tom Morris
Kneehigh Theatre
RNT Olivier
(2007)

Production photo

Cornish company Kneehigh certainly know how to guarantee a good review. One can hardly damn a play when a pretty actress in sexy nurse's gear chooses you from a 1,000 strong opening night audience for a kiss on the cheek.

In fact, it would be churlish to do down Emma Rice and Tom Morris's reinterpretation of a classic film that starred David Niven, Kim Hunter and Roger Livesey. There are glaring faults in this rich, experimental cocktail of the spectacular and self-indulgent but these are overwhelmed by their innovation and imagination.

By the end, the good nature of the piece and some tremendous images should win over most visitors, even those who bemoan some of the liberties taken with a wartime story that many will regard as sacrosanct.

After a wet dream of an opening with those nurses, handsome Squadron Leader and poet Peter Carter, energetically played by Tristan Sturrock, goes into freefall without a parachute. He seems destined to die but for the love of a WAAF, whom he has never seen, let alone met.

Lyndsey Marshal shows great feeling as June, the lovely creature for whom he turns down a date in Heaven, but only after a sensual night that would certainly have raised temperatures in 1945, when the romance is set.

Carter's failure to arrive causes problems for Conductor 71, played by Icelandic acrobat, Gísli Örn Gardarsson, best known for his work with Vesturport and most recently seen in Metamorphosis.

He is upbraided for his sloppiness in misplacing a soul in a peasouper a soul and arrives on earth, charged with bringing back his lost sheep. For whatever reason, Gardarsson plays the part as a dim escapologist who seems to have flown in from a comedy 60 years later. This gets laughs but detracts from the overall effect, already dangerously surreal.

Carter's journey eventually leads to a showdown in St Peter's court, where his articulate advocate is Douglas Hodge's Frank, a brilliant doctor, who dies to get the part. He finds himself defending his friend against Peter's father, Shakespeare and reason. For the defence, he has little but love on his side but Powell and Pressburger's romantic thesis is that love should be enough to conquer anything, even the divine.

What makes this production special is the Kneehigh style. They deconstruct the film and put it back together, accentuating the eccentric and adding in tangential scenes for the pleasure of it.

At their best, the company can take the breath away, with prime examples including the scene where Peter jumps from his blazing plane, June's attempted ascent to Heaven over a stairway of hospital beds and Frank's fatal motorbike ride. Best of all though might be a dreamlike Ping-Pong match that could have been drawn from The Prisoner.

Emma Rice and Tom Morris really pack too much experimentation into just over two hours (without an interval). The evening can feel rather haphazard with odd, irrelevant song and dance sequences, ventures into the auditorium and an eclectic musical selection with everything from punk to mambo played by a live quintet. The overall effect though, is often exciting and eventually moving with its very powerful "make love not war" imperative.

When still alive and known as Magnus the Magnificent, Conductor 71's act was ambitiously billed as "High art, raw sexuality and futuristic pantomime". Whether this evening lives up to that billing may be open to question but with 2/3 of tickets at £10 thanks to Travelex, it has to be worth finding out.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher