Review – A Matter of Life and Death, National Theatre

Wednesday 9 May 2007

A Matter of Life and Death masks

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 A Matter of Life and Death

David Niven and Marius Goring in the film.

23 Responses to “Review – A Matter of Life and Death, National Theatre”

  1. shadowdaddy Says:

    Absolute Beginners also features an extended segment of completely anachronistic rap music. For the record.

    (I can almost hear the production meeting conversation now: “I think it needs to be rap music during the street fight. It’s ‘street,’ it’s edgy, this is a timeless struggle, still relevant today.” Or something along those lines. Gah.)

  2. Jmc Says:

    I really enjoyed this review. The one Kneehigh show I endured – The Bacchae – was truly appalling. Theatre for children with learning disabilities dressed up as stuff for adults (of course, no one is an adult nowadays…).


  3. Both – yes indeed. This question of “how do we get young people into the theatre?” is one that is taking the subsidised theatre down a very tedious “street” indeed. Did young people ever go to the theatre? One would imagine they have better things to do.


  4. Hmm, I don’t know, I think that’s a bit harsh about Kneehigh, JMC; when they’re on form and when the source material is right, they can be quite good fun. Indeed, I rather enjoyed Nights At The Circus. Matter Of Life And Death on the other hand? No, no, no. Not good. A huge disappointment.

  5. Neil Wallace Says:

    Oh Whingers, how right you are. This was a production clearly put together by someone who has no idea why the quietly profound and very English film is so well loved. What remained of the plot was lost behind a wall of the sort of gaudy gimics and limp schtick which, let’s face it, generally play best on the continent. What next? Brief Encounter on trampolines? The Bridge on the River Kwai with ventriloquist dummies? It’s theatrical correctness gone mad, I tell you!

  6. Malcolm Says:

    Absolutely agree. Went the first night and wriggled with embarrassment. It was over-produced where it didn’t need it with dangling ropes, bicycles and beds and under produed in any areas of tension, characterisation or emtional power. The comedy was excrable – more like the worst of panto.

    If there had been an interval I would have left but in any case its 2 hours of my life I’ll never have again.

  7. Tim Says:

    Indeed: nobody minds that Kneehigh can mess up Angela Carter’s work, such as Nights at the Circus, because it is messy to start with.

    Taking on a proper classic is another matter. Also altering the historical context in order to promote a soppy subsidised- theatre pacifist message is unforgiveable.

  8. Will H Says:

    I am lost in admiration as to how you managed to review this show without resorting to anatomical obscenities. My God it was awful – a strange, fascinating and haunting film reduced to a two hour long circus act by a sixth form drama group. And this was on the main stage of the National Theatre! How much public subsidy did they blow on all those harnesses and video projections?

  9. Jon Says:

    Having never seen the movie nor read any reviews of ‘Matter of Life & Death’, I went to last night’s production with an open mind. I’m not a big Kneehigh fan, but they’re usually interesting and the National rarely disappoints. This, however, was unreservedly the worst thing I have ever seen on the professional stage – period. I’d have rather spent those excruciating two hours having root canal than sitting through this self-regarding tripe. Vote with your feet and stay away.

  10. Chris Valkenaers Says:

    Thank you for your review! That gives us at least some fun for the money we spend on the tickets.
    I have never seen anything as bad as this play. Ok I admit we could not stand it any longer and took advantage of a ‘cuffle around’ on the stage to leave after 30 min!

  11. Chris Kaday Says:

    I do worry about getting young people into the theatre and the opera house too for that matter. I look around the audience at the ENO and think this lot will be dead in less than 20 years and me too probably! ROH seem a little younger but maybe that is because of the occasion and a great place to show off that frock. Pure spectacle and ‘dumming down’ is not the answer. New audiences need to be inspired by stunning acting and clear insightful production to come again and again. Is it my imagination or has the RNT now embarked on a new style of theatre called ‘form over substance’? Thank goodness we were only two seats from the aisle and there were lots of blackouts. After one our seats were empty. We had performed our own little version of Mr Magic!

  12. Jacqueline Says:

    You all sound like a lot of couch potatoes not understanding that theatre drama is as much what is not said as what is said. It takes imagination, thought processes and, if necessary, suspension of belief to fully benefit from something as brilliant as Kneehigh’s production of AMOLAD. For instance, where you see flying beds and upside down cycles, some of us see Lancaster bombers. You must surely have grasped that the ladder was the stairway to paradise . . . You don’t deserve to have seats at the NT but should be sitting somewhere in the Gods on Shaftesbury Avenue.

  13. Kate Says:

    Well I don’t now what to think. I saw it last week with the intention of writing my A level drama written exam on it. I have to say there will be lots to talk about visually, with so much going on the plot was slightly sidelined! I enjoyed the light humour, such as conductor 71, but it kind of dragged out to an extent it was no longer funny. I liked the table tennis scene and the use of the stairs in many different ways. In all I think it was amazingly innovative, however was a bit of an anti-war parade! It was obviously trying to appeal to a younger audience, but even a lot of the 18-year-olds weren’t impressed!


  14. Jacqueline – I think you’ll find it’s “suspension of DISbelief” but anyway. Re “where you see flying beds and upside down cycles, some of us see Lancaster bombers” I think you should maybe you should reduce your dosage.


  15. Kate: We recommend you change your A level Drama course to A level film studies, then you can watch (and enjoy) one of the most extraordinary British films ever made and and spend your time analysing something worthwhile.

    If that’s not practical, don’t for heaven’s sake analyse this production. Go and see something more artistically cogent – The Drowsy Chaperone, Boeing, Boeing or well, just about anything really. Lord of the Rings – the Musical?

  16. Jackie Schneider Says:

    I really liked it! So did the 3 kids (aged 10 , 11 and 13) I thought that the time simply flew by. Maybe I need tickets to see more “sixth form drama groups” if they are as good as this!

    My kids preferred it to the last Barbican panto, ( oh yes they did…)

    I absolutely hated “Philistines” Is there a connection?


  17. Oh, Jackie, Jackie. And I was just saying to your hubby yesterday that the Whingers would love to go out to the theatre with you.

    Now you’ve gone and spoiled it all.

    We hear you are shameless about accosting members of the cast in the bar afterwards, much to the mortification of Mr Schneider.

    Shall we go anyway and just agree not to discuss the play?

    Or we could skip the play and just go to the bar afterwards. In fact, I don’t know why we haven’t thought of that before.

  18. He who knows little Says:

    I found this rather witty review to be somewhat unfortunately blind. When looking at the (I agree) extremely technical and visually extravigant production, it is possible to see the corny-ness of chronologically mis-matched production, but it should be otherwise noted that this kind of theatre is often referred to as post modern, or absurdism. A type of theatre that isn’t meant to make perfect sense or perfect ratings. In the production a subject was broached that could be considered controversial, or just rather interesting. And that is the idea of fate. The playwrights chose, in this adaptation, to have two alternate endings: Peter lives, or Peter dies. All of this is resting on the flip of a coin. No human being is deciding his fate, and the trial becomes a mute point. The jury does not decide anything (they being led astray by compassion or jealousy) and all that is left is a simple test of fate. I find it fascinating.
    The technical aspects of the play were a feat of some magnitude. As a stage manager and a technician, I shan’t bother you with my ravings in that department, but the technical capacity of the Olivier Theatre, especially the fly space, is something to be appreciated.

  19. Theatrestudent Says:

    I’m going to be honest here and most likely come out looking like an ignorant American. I studied theatre through my university in London this past summer. We were lucky enough to see a very wide array of what English theatre has to offer. I must say out of everything I saw while abroad, I loved A Matter of Life and Death the most. I am a huge fan of Baz Luhrman’s red curtain works so maybe that will give some insight into my taste and why I loved it so. I was completely moved by all sensory aspects working together to create something that gave me goosebumps through most of the production. To those who did not like the rap bit, I must question that you are a bit dry. I thought that using a music genre like rap in a historical drama was GENIUS! It was like a playground of the senses and it really drew me in to the story. I have told everyone back home about the amazing show I saw at the National Theatre. I definately think it should be something to be proud of.

  20. Louise Says:

    I am totally with Jacqueline and ‘Theatrestudent’…. I think Kneehigh’s production of ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ was beautiful and spectacular. Possibly the best thing I have ever seen (and I see a lot of theatre). It truly emersed all the senses and drew me into a magical world which was obviously beyond a lot of your limited imaginations. Kneehigh always manage to bring the fun back into theatre, and theatre should be fun – otherwise theres no point. Emma Rice is a genius… unlike you morbid sods!

  21. Louise Says:

    “New audiences need to be inspired by stunning acting and clear insightful production to come again and again” – you are right chris… and kneehigh provide this and more.

  22. Diane Friedman Says:

    I think that my neurological analysis of A Matter of Life and Death is more on target, published first in Seizure in 1992 and just now published as a book A Matter of Life and Death: the brain revealed by the mind of Michael Powell. I’m sorry I couldn’t see the play.
    I think the film is on one level is a wonderful description of the history and future of science and literature in the UK. But Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wove it so skillfully into a wonderful story of love that no one really stopped to notice.

  23. Jonathan M Says:

    I didn’t see this production, but I DID see the more recent DON JOHN at the RSC’s Courtyard theatre, and felt compelled to find out more about this company. I need to know just what’s going on with British theatre. Yes, ok, you can argue I’m a stuffy, over-educated English Lit student from Cambridge who doesn’t know how to have a good time. Yes, you can argue I’m a frustrated actor who’s wondering why I haven’t worked since a stint at the RSC in 2007. Yes, you can argue that acting styles that “float my boat” went out in the 1980s, to be replaced by emoting for emoting’s sake, no political will, cheap sex and rubbish music. FINE. But I just wish companies like KNEEHIGH would be PUT DOWN. Way back in 1990, I met an actor who now runs a well-known “physical theatre” company. He ranted and raved, “Literature’s for radio!! Oxbridge graduates are killing theatre!! Theatre is a visual medium!!” So what’s happened? Has this guy won? Has language and ideas been banished to the “wireless”, to be replaced by lots of howling and screaming on the end of ropes, leaping about in crinolines and running up and down ladders? This, worryingly, heralds a new era of theatrical “Told by an idiocy…” which is almost fascistic in its anti-intellectualism. Children’s theatre for grownups, but as one of you says, who is grown up nowadays?


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