Review: A Matter of Life and Death at LIPA ****
Powell and Pressburger’s fantastical tale of life after – or rather, instead of – death remains a cinematic favourite after more than 70 years.
But it took almost that long for someone to conceive of a way to lift the story from the screen and breathe life in to it on stage.
That challenge landed at the feet of Tom Morris and Emma Rice who created this whimsically ingenious version for Kneehigh Theatre to premiere at the National a decade ago.
LIPA may not have the National’s resources, but this new production performed by third year acting students has something in common with Kneehigh – that same element of enjoyably inventive and visually arresting storytelling.
Plucky, poetry-spouting pilot Peter Carter (Greg Jones) is at the controls of his doomed Lancaster, limping home from a raid over Germany with the knowledge that with no parachute he’s not going to make it back to Blighty in one piece.
After striking up a light-hearted but intense conversation with American radio dispatcher June (Julie St James), he bails out – only for the ‘conductor’ sent to deliver him to ‘the other world’ to miss him in the midst of a spring pea souper.
When Peter and June then meet on terra firma, they fall in love. But with Peter technically living on borrowed time, can he successfully argue his case for life before a celestial court, and will the transcendent value of love win the day?
A Matter of Life and Death. Photos: © Andrew AB Photography and The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts
These questions are played out over a rollercoaster 1hr 50minutes, and on designer Ellie Light’s steeply-raked disc-shaped stage – a world turned on its axis - where minimal props are used in imaginative fashion.
There’s a heightened, hurdy-gurdy vaudeville feel to the action, a theatre of the absurd which emphasises the indistinct line between the real and the unreal.
There are also some very colourful characterisations including Michael Wolf as the delightfully hapless Conductor 71 (he has a hint of Spymonkey’s Aitor Basouri about him), and Jack Sanders who steals more than one scene, first as a Shakespeare-loving doctor on Earth and then as a broad Brummie-accented Bard in the afterlife.
Unlike the 1946 film which had a grandiose stairway and legions of onlookers, the celestial court is realised in more modest fashion, and the handful of witnesses for the prosecution include Peter’s own father.
Peter himself is represented by mind doctor Frank (Rebecca Ozer), but in this version, frustratingly you never really get to hear much of a well-reasoned defence, and there’s no explanation of how June suddenly arrives in The Other World to make her own - mind-changing - declaration.
Still, narrative quibbles – and some overly-loud cymbal crashing – aside, this is a much-loved story told with imagination and plenty of chutzpah.