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A CurtainUp London London Review
A Matter of Life and Death

I've been swimming in this pea soup like a crouton ---- Conductor 71
A Matter of Life and Death
Members of the Company
(Photo: Steve Tanner)
Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre bring us their latest extravaganza into the National Theatre's huge Olivier auditorium. It is a re-working of Powell and Pressburger's 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death, a story about a pilot during wartime who bails out a Lancaster bomber without a parachute. Kneehigh's special treatment is the visual with wonderfully staged acrobatics and the seriously anti-war polemic.

The story-line itself I found almost incomprehensible as it inevitably takes second place to the pyrotechnics and other circus acts taking place onstage. The thing about anti-war campaigners is that they take the moral high ground and fudge the issues that lead up to the difficult decision to go to war. If Hitler had not been stopped, what do they think would have been the outcome? Could he have been persuaded to negotiate a peace? I think Neville Chamberlain tried that,

Peter Carter (Tristan Sturrock) is in communication with a radio controller June (Lyndsey Marshal) when in a pea souper of a fog he ejects without his parachute to certain death. However Conductor 71, a Norwegian magician (Gisli Õrn Gardarsson) confused by the dense fog, misses his target to take Peter to Heaven/Hell and the pilot is allowed by default to live and meet and fall in love with June. When the error is revealed, a court hears Peter's case to be allowed to survive and ultimately the decision is made on the toss of a coin. I presume two endings have been prepared, either one of which could be put into operation at each performance.

Much of the play takes place in a dreamscape with exciting visual set pieces, effective if you do not overly dwell on their meaning. There is an exciting game of table tennis between the neurosurgeon (Douglas Hodge) and June where the white balls are on 12 feet poles and choreographed to a swing tune from the big band music of the 1940s. I liked too the hospital scenes with nurses in white stocking and suspenders pedalling bicycles upside down on hospital beds to create the illusion of the engines of an aircraft. We see June clamber up staggered hospital beds but we also clearly see the safety harness which detracts from some of the spectacle. The romance between Peter and June is consummated on a swinging bed, more wildly sentimental than erotic. During the crash scenes, fires burn with real flames onstage. Bill Mitchell's sets are astonishing, inventively using arched portable staircases to make up an aircraft and, when joined with a centre piece, a heavenly court.

Gisli Õrn Gardarsson is a popular and strange figure who is capable of magnificent physical acts on the end of a bungee rope and whose entrance is greeted enthusiastically by the audience. I did enjoy Gisli's scenes although I felt they almost came from another production, dressed as he is as a character out of Wacky Races. Tristan Sturrock does well without overdoing the stiff upper lip of the English pilot but Lyndsey Marshal's June errs on the syrupy and whining in her plea for their love to live. Yuk!

I just wish that Kneehigh and the National Theatre could have found a more worthy piece on which to expend these extravagant effects. What does the scene where uniformed girls show their suspenders mean in this context? They are imitating aircraft engines. Is the point being made that war is sexy, that aircraft bombers are sexy? That we are easily seduced by war? Peter's request to stay alive is opposed by those who died in bombing raids on Dresden and Coventry which seems mean minded of them. I think the design ideas, whilst being memorable, actually have little intrinsic meaning. The goal is simply spectacle with an anti-war theme to give this piece of physical theatre A-OK credentials.

Based on the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Adapted for the stage by Tom Morris and Emma Rice
Directed by Emma Rice

Starring: Gisli Õrn Gardarsson, Douglas Hodge
With: Tristan Sturrock, Lyndsey Marshal, Craig Johnson, Debbie Korley, Andy Williams, Chike Okonkwo, Mike Shepherd, Dan Canham, Dorothy atkinson, Fiona Chivers, Meryl Fernandes, Lorraine stewart, Lizzie Winkler, Kirsty Woodward, Jamie Bradley, Thomad Goodridge, Pieter Lawman, Robert Luckay, Tamzin Griffin, Stuart McLoughlin
Set Design: Bill Mitchell
Costume Design: Vicky Mortimer
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Gareth Fry
Projection Design: Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington
Choreographers: Debra Batton and Emma Rice
Music: Stu Barker
In association with Kneehigh Theatre
Running time: Two hours 10 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 21st June 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 10th May 2007 performance at the Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo, Southwark)
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