In between all the copious reading, I have sometimes escaped my pod. The Dr took me on Friday night for ramen and A Matter of Life and Death. It’s an expertly staged version of the Powell and Pressburger movie, full of vim and ingenuity. But I felt these rather detracted from the all-important love story.
The film (which I love but the Dr and Codename Moose both felt too boring) begins with dashingly handsome World War 2 pilot Peter (David Niven) on his way back from a raid over Germany. The rest of his crew have either bailed out or bought it, and Peter’s plane is bothersomely on fire. Knowing he hasn’t a hope of landing, and dashed well without a parachute, he natters to a pretty-sounding wireless operator – June, played by Kim Hunter (yes, hot chimp lady Zira from the Planet of the Apes).
After wooing this fine-sounding filly, Peter leaps from the plane… and miraculously survives. The after-life has made a balls-up in the typically English fog, and while Peter and June get to a-snogging, a celestial court hearing is being arranged…
The afterlife of the movie is full of deliciously over-the-top performances, yet all in cold black and white. The spirit world is a haunting and grey place. This contrasts with the staid, stiff-lipped Brits surviving world war in rich and vivid colour. The play nicely smudges the split between the two worlds – living and dead – so it’s less explicit that the court is all in Peter’s head. I was a bit worried by advance warning that the play featured several songs, but its all fun and rumble-tumble stuff, bringing to life the passion of life that Peter’s fighting for.
That said, this smudging does make things a bit tricky for the central wheeze – whether it’s right that Peter should get a second chance. For all Douglas Hodge does his best as Peter’s dead friend Frank, arguing in defence of the star-cross’d lovers, we’re not exactly convinced of the special flavour of the case when the afterlife seems so rosy. There’s passion and larking and sexy girls on both sides of the mortal divide, and the dead seem more happy and care-free.
The performances on stage were all excellent, though the plot was overshadowed by moving props, Kirby wires and pyrotechnics. I thought of my few lessons in audio drama – that the sound engineers can make widescreen baroque on stereo, but we need to hear the words people are saying to build a picture in minds. The play is a great, funny feast to watch and enjoy, but its real strength and cleverness get a bit lost in the mayhem. The larking about and jokes about drowning in bags of milk rather smothers the emotional core.
It doesn’t help that the play then brings out women killed in Coventry and Dresden on the sorts of mission Peter was flying. This departure from the film may make the story more complex and contemporary, but the random brutality of war also undercuts the right of Peter to get special leniency. In the film he’s fighting a war against grey bureaucracy – and one that’s made the cock-up in the first place. In the play his motivation is a bit more selfish.
The extra context did very effectively up the emotional stakes of the play, and maybe got the audience working more critically. It is very well done, and a lively, sparky night out was exactly what my sandpapered eyes were after. Yet in retrospect it doesn’t sit happily.
Perhaps it’s just the effect of living in a different time. The film originally played to a newly post-war audience, every one of whom would have lost somebody. The underplayed sentiment holds back a tide of evocations.