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 The Theatreguide.London Review

A Matter of Life and Death
Olivier Theatre         Summer 2007

This is the sort of show that critics and audiences either love or hate. I loved it, and urge anyone open to audacious theatrical imagination to experience it.

But then, I love the work of Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre, whose co-production with the National this is.

Kneehigh's signature blend of acting, music, mine, dance, spectacular visuals and even aerial ballet doesn't always pay off. But when it does, as in their Tristan and Yseult, seen at the National a couple of years back, or through at least 80% of this show, it can be heart-stoppingly thrilling.

This show is a free adaptation by Kneehigh directors Tom Morris and Emma Rice of the much-loved 1946 film in which David Niven played a pilot whose death was bungled by the Heavenly Powers, giving him an opportunity to fall in love with Kim Stanley and then appeal his death sentence before an otherworldly court.

Kneehigh have translated the film's magic into theatrical terms, using all the resources of the Olivier stage. Bicycles turn into radar dishes, beds into stairways, ladders into rainbows, and there is sometimes as much action above the stage floor as on it.

When the two lovers played by Tristan Sturrock and Lyndsey Marshal finally get together, having met only over the radio, their bed literally floats on air; when eternity intervenes and time stops, a giant clock appears and freezes.

There are moments of gasp-inducing stage invention and others of sheer visual beauty, all in the service of the script's magical premise and its conflict between the two absolutes of love and death.

So why doesn't everyone love it as much as I, and why might you not? There are moments when simple linear storytelling is sacrificed to the establishment and evocation of mood. Some - a remarkably small number - of the magical effects misfire or fall flat.

As the dead Danish magician whose bumbling creates the cosmic problem, Gisli Orn Gardarsson is as irritatingly unfunny as Marius Goring was as his French counterpart in the film - so consistently so that I wonder if his badness is some kind of perverse homage to the film.

The adapters' deviations from the familiar film may annoy some, particularly in the ending, which is not only different from the film, but deliberately and defiantly so. (I was thrilled by that break with expectation, but the people behind me were particularly angered by it.)

But don't come to the Olivier as a purist. Come to revel in the bounty of Kneehigh's theatrical imagination and to be caught up in the magic of the story it has to tell, and you'll be as enchanted as I.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of A Matter Of Life And Death - National Theatre 2007

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