Alice Dryden (huskyteer) wrote,
Alice Dryden

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Stairway To Heaven

As soon as I learned that the National Theatre was putting on a stage production of A Matter of Life and Death I was excited beyond measure. Last night my wait was over and I got to see it, in the company of mykreeve and my former housemate Pablo who adores the film.

If you're not familiar with the plot of the Powell & Pressburger movie, it goes like this:

Lancaster pilot Peter Carter strikes up a conversation with an American WAAF in the moments before leaping from his crippled plane without a parachute. He awakes on a beach thinking he has miraculously survived; in fact the 'Conductor' sent to collect his spirit missed him in the English fog, and he ought to be dead. But by the time the Conductor turns up, Peter has met and fallen in love with the woman he spoke to in what he thought were his last moments. No longer ready to die, he demands the right to appeal against his death. Is he endangered by a head injury suffered in his fall, one effect of which is hallucination, or is he really bargaining for his continued existence? Either way, his life depends on the outcome of his appeal.

The film's vision was stunning for its time and is still remarkable today, with sets including a vast escalator linking our world with the next. The play stayed true to these visual riches with song, dance, pyrotechnics and flying wires. I think the camera obscura and the ping-pong game were my favourite effects.

A chorus of blokes in pyjamas and nurses in starched uniforms who double as hospital staff and patients and the denizens of the next world blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy-or-is-it-the-supernatural, and there is a constantly surreal atmosphere in which a cigarette or a bicycle can appear bizarre and sinister.

It would have been very easy to produce a spoof, playing the cheesy lines for laughs, but this has been avoided entirely. The dialogue and action is appropriate for the time (though a little racier than would have been allowed in contemporary cinema), but only overdone by deliberately comic characters like Trubshawe, Peter's radio operator.

It would also have been easy to drag the Iraq war into things, a bandwagon jumped by far too many theatrical productions over the last few years. This pitfall, too, is avoided.

I won't give a blow-by-blow account of every aspect which differed from the film, but there were some biggies. (The line that always makes me burst into tears - you'll guess which - is omitted, which was perhaps a good thing.)

The Conductor, in the film a nobleman beheaded in the French Revolution, takes the form of an unsuccessful Norwegian magician, to great comic effect. Due to our great seats in the middle of the third row he made one of his entrances and delivered his lines directly behind me. (He was a very spitty actor.)

In the film, the chief case against Peter's petition is that a nice young American girl has no business hanging out with a British airman - a parable of Anglo-American relations. This disappears completely, but new additions to the courtroom scenes more than make up for it.

The best moment of all is a superb twist on the film but I can't tell you about it, because that would be a big fat spoiler. Go and see the play and you'll know.

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