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Times have changed since A Matter of Life and Death was made. Powell and Pressburger’s romantic fantasy, released in 1946, was surely meant to soothe the pain of the war years. The film’s story of pilot Peter Carter, who bails out of a burning bomber but cheats death by falling in love, must have touched a deep well of yearning in its early audiences. Yet its light touch and optimism offered solace. And Peter’s union with June, an American radio operator, is symbolic of a new future with America. The film may be set during the war, but it’s about learning to live with the peace.
We now, of course, stand at some distance from that war. And so Emma Rice and Tom Morris have had the ingenious idea of staging this touching story, but of flipping the coin to show the darker side. Their version is for an audience that has not recently been through conflict. It tells the story with panache and affection, but reminds us of the pain behind it. It twists the ending to bring home the randomness of death, to suggest what it might feel like to have happiness snatched away. A toss of a penny decides Peter’s fate each night. It is audacious, may infuriate devotees of the film and it knocks you for six. But that is the point. The cruelty of war and the beauty of life surge through this show, so that the life-death battle at the heart of it seems urgent.
And so on the vast Olivier stage, Rice and Kneehigh Theatre bring their playful theatricality, so popular with young audiences, to bear on their grandparents’ world. As in the film, Peter jumps to his death but an administrative bungle causes him to miss his slot in the afterlife. His heavenly “conductor” (interpreted by Gisli Orn Gardarsson as an accident- prone magician) is sent down to correct matters and allows Peter to appeal his case in a celestial court. The action swings between heaven and earth, but could all be in Peter’s damaged brain, as his life hangs in the balance.
Rice’s production rises to the ambiguities of the setting, using the huge space with élan. Here heaven is a misty blue expanse that stretches way back into the recesses of the stage, staffed by angelic district nurses on celestial bicycles. Hand-bells and dim lights create an eerie, yet soothing appeal. Bill Mitchell’s fluid design uses bicycles, beds and back projection to suggest place, but also to evoke emotional states. The physical joy of being alive comes blazing across: actors jitterbug wildly, smash ping-pong balls back and forth or swing Peter and June on a hospital bed in an ecstasy of desire. But the shadow of death is ever present in the shape of a black-clad widow, who finally asserts herself when Peter, at the climax of his trial, struggles with his own feelings of guilt.
Tristan Sturrock and Lyndsey Marshal are excellent as Peter and June: passionate, plucky and touching. And Douglas Hodge is very likeable as the wistfully lovelorn doctor. But there are problems, and they mostly have to do with excess. Too often the staging is too busy, so that scenes lose their focus, and some effects seem self-indulgently inventive. Stu Barker’s music is atmospheric, but likewise over-persistent. The antiwar message is heavily stated in the trial scene and there is a rather tedious subplot. Less would sometimes be more. But still, this is a remarkable production that poignantly expresses the fragility of life, seesawing from celebration to elegy as it uses this huge forum to consider the human cost of war.
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