First things first; straight to brass tacks. The unsettling tale of the new pricing policy of the National Theatre’s programmes continues to intrigue the luminaries of the Whingers Circle .
Regular readers will recall that the price of a programme on our last visit to the National to see Rafta Rafta had mysteriously dropped to £2 from the customary £3 (the price of the chocolate, the ice cream and the wine sadly remaining unaffected).
Happily the equilibrium of the universe seems to have been restored and the price of the programme last night was again three of your puny earth decimal pounds. And that is the most important thing we have to report.
More? OK. For the third outing in as many weeks, the Whingers sat stony-faced (Andrew’s face looks like a collapsed pile of loose chippings anyway and Phil’s resembles something rejected from Easter Island) while many around them roared with delight. First there was Hound of the Baskervilles, then Vernon God Little and now A Matter of Life and Death.
This production is based on the classic 1946 Powell & Pressburger movie, a particular favourite of both Whingers who consequently turned up at the National Theatre with the best wills in the world – a very rare experience for them.
AMOLAD (as Powell and Pressburger themselves referred to it) tells the tale of a young RAF pilot Peter (Tristan Sturrock) forced to bale out from a burning aircraft without a parachute. His last act is before he jumps to seemingly certain death is to flirt with June (Lyndsey Marshal), an air control girl he has never met. They fall in love.
He jumps but doesn’t die – an administrative cock-up in heaven means that his fate has not been sealed and one of heaven’s “conductors” is sent down to persuade him to come peacefully. Anyway, finding himself trapped between life and death he has to appeal to the heavenly authorities to stay alive. His main defence is that he has fallen in love, and that that changes everything.
It’s a classic film and we are assuming that everyone is familiar with Damian Sutton’s seminal work Rediagnosing A Matter of Life and Death in the learned journal Screen (2005 46(1):51-61). If not, this abstract should bring you up to speed:
Beginning with a new ‘diagnosis’ of epilepsy and Cotard’s syndrome in Peter Carter, the article reviews the film as a narrative of trauma that uses its central character to work through the social issue of the returned (maimed) soldier to society. However, underlying this ‘rediagnosis’ is the treatment of time developed in analyses of both temporal lobe epilepsy and traumatic memory. The article suggests that both conditions act to expose the ordinary operation of past and present as simultaneous co-existence, developed theoretically by Henri Bergson and others, that we normally experience as the passing of time (chronology).
Anyway, in the hands of Kneehigh (and boomps-a-dasiy?) Theatre this sublime, very English film with its clever under-stylisation (heaven is portrayed in black and white; earth in colour) has been transformed into an all singing, all dancing, all fire-starting, all bed-flying extravaganza with some campanology thrown in for good measure.
The first few minutes begin promisingly enough with a vast and empty, blue-lit atmospheric stage, which the company couldn’t wait to clutter up like a new Ikea cutlery draw.
An awful lot of beds, bicycles climbing frames and people were wheeled onto the Olivier stage – plus a band. Andrew had been very excited when he saw in the programme that one of the performers was named Andy Williams and was settling down for a bit of easy-listening (forgetting there is no easy-listening in the acoustically retarded Olivier auditorium). There was indeed a singer, but what’s that? Rap music? Oh no. Oh yes! This is 1945. Of course.
Now there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to hoist their hackles: rap is not music to the Whinger’s ears, in fact in the not-so-humble opinion of the Whingers it should never be used at all. It was one of the many reasons that forced them to make a hasty interval departure at the execrable Daddy Cool. To be fair, we had been tipped off about this by Sam London but we weren’t prepared for the awfulness of the whole thing.
Things continued to be wheeled on, spun around, clipped to flying wires and unclipped again. Actors descended on wires and ropes, were clipped into flying harnesses and unclipped. Yes there was no shortage of clipping.
Some of the actors pranced around doing silly dances and gurning at the audience; they were meant to be hilarious.
Any touching dramatic moments were obliterated by redundant but intensely showy things going on, above, behind and around them. Noises and music which are presumably intended to underscore the story succeeded only in working against it – distracting from, rather than enhancing, the tale.
A particularly cruel gag was the projection of a clock onto a high circular screen which had Phil constantly glancing at his watch as well as serving to make him ponder that the few remaining minutes of his own life were ticking away while he sat through this travesty. It was such an unmitigated shambles it made the Young Vic’s Vernon God Little look fluid and cohesive.
To be fair, the showiness is done very well (especially the bed fire) but Andrew just found himself asking “why?” repeatedly. The answer, presumably, is that this is what Kneehigh does. But quite how the spectacle of nurses bicycling upside down on hospital beds was supposed to enhance the story remained unclear to the Whingers.
What did rapidly become clear was that it would be A Matter of Stay or Leave. But removing the interval was probably the wisest artistic decision of the evening (do they know they have a stinker on their hands?). At 2 hours 15 minutes (P & P told the story in 104 minutes) it’s very demanding on the bladder. The Whingers toughed it out although once again the couple next to Andrew couldn’t quite hack it (Phil has his own theories on why this happens so frequently) and departed before the end despite being stuck in the middle of row B of the stalls.
The Whingers may have turned up with good will but as it finally dragged to a close Phil had lost the will to live. He’d also started mentally rewriting his will – the programme contains an appeal thoughtfully asking the Whingers to leave the National Theatre a legacy when they finally go to the great wine bar in the sky (does the National know something the Whingers don’t?). Andrew is not sure what the outcome of Phil’s reflections are, but he suspects that Mr Hytner is not destined to be the chief beneficiary of Phil’s porcelain thimble collection after all.
In the film version when Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) first arrives on earth to visit Peter (David Niven) he comments: “One is starved for Technicolor up there”. Two hours of this and we guarantee he would have changed his tune.
David Niven and Marius Goring in the film.