Review: A Matter of Life and Death, National Theatre

Based on a well respected (although I’d never heard of it, let alone seen it) film, A Matter of Life and Death sees Cornish theatre company Kneehigh take the cavernous Olivier theatre by storm with a highly inventive and physical reinterpretation of this story. Peter, a World War II pilot is shot down whilst on a mission but doesn’t die because the angel sent to collect him gets lost in the fog. Instead, he meets and falls in love with June, the radio operator who tried to help him down. Peter is then forced to plead his case in the court of Heaven to see how his future will play out.

As the romantic leads, both Tristan Sturrock as Peter and Lyndsey Marshal as June seemed a little overwhelmed by the production, not really able to give us much of a sense of the relationship between the two and too often required to do something gymnastic or wacky instead of focusing on the emotion of the moment. In the more light-hearted characters, like Douglas Hodge’s Frank and Gisli Örn Gardarsson’s gymnastic Conductor, there’s more freedom and opportunity for fun, but by and large this wasn’t a production about strong acting.

Personally, I was not a fan of it; I found the show too long to run without an interval and thought that there was just generally too much faffing around. The focus seemed to be on creating spectacle after spectacle, so a table tennis match becomes a huge event and there’s an evocation of an aeroplane using burning rubbish bins and nurses pedalling upside down on bicycles (I must admit I had to have this explained to me, I couldn’t see the plane without being told!): it’s all done on an admirably epic scale but to me it had little heart or real meaning. And whilst the use of a live band onstage was initially a nice touch but stylistically, their accompaniment jarred badly as it covered a multitude of musical styles with no coherence, some poorly judged ‘comic’ songs and was frequently distractingly loud.

So not one of my favourites by any means, but then my companion absolutely adored it, so obviously something of the Marmite about this one!

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