Even the threat of debilitating contagion couldn’t put this show off the road, when a key cast member was floored by chickenpox 48 hours before the first night. Nevertheless, with Orlando Williams heroically leaping into the breach (and Freddie Lawson safely but comfortably holed-up in quarantine), we were treated to all the hallmarks of a classic HRB production even at this nerve-shredding, immunologically-challenging stage of term. Slick ensemble, inventive set design and nuanced, witty handling of comic and sensitive affect made this Powell-Pressburger fantasy-romance – which first hit screens in 1946 – an utterly absorbing, moving and feel-good finale to yet another amazing year.
The play, a 2007 adaptation of the film by Emma Rice, contains a thrilling but complex story that the cast and crew skilfully explicated. In the final week of the Second World War, a badly shot-up Lancaster is returning from a bombing run in appalling fog. The plane is doomed and its pilot, Squadron Leader Peter Carter (Rider Hartley), is the only survivor, his parachute ripped to shreds by cannon-fire. Some of the crew have bailed out; others are dead. Alone on his crippled, blazing ‘kite’, Carter realises it's curtains.
With upper-lip stiff, but florid with metaphysical poetry, he talks to June (Ella Niblett): they are quite moved by the life in each other's voices.
Then he jumps and wakes up in the surf. It was his time to die, but there was a mix-up in heaven: the wheels of its bureaucracy are flummoxed by weather conditions – they couldn't find him in the fog. By the time his hapless, fog-bound soul-collector, Conductor 71 (Harry Waterworth), catches up with him, some 20 hours later, Peter and June have met and fallen in love.
Such heavenly negligence changes everything, and since it happened through no fault of his own, Peter figures that heaven owes him a second chance. The powers-that-be in ‘The Next World’ agree to a trial to decide his fate. Should he die, as the Universe’s law dictates, or does the power of love conquer even this so that he can enjoy the rest of his life on Earth with June?
Clearly all hinges on a convincing spark between June and Peter: and we were not disappointed with a powerful presentation of love under fire, chased down by Time’s winged chariot. Rider and Ella played out the relationship with a great deal of charm and poise amid mellifluous chiming of cut-glass RP vowels. With welcome precision, their delivery deftly swerved pastiche to capture, quite movingly though briefly in their short exchanges, the pathos of an intense wartime romance – he chipper but vulnerable, she devoted yet strained to near-broken by the attrition of it all.
Expertly curated song-and-dance numbers supported this evocation of the zeitgeist with cool control. Kate Woodman, Tabitha Winkley, Emily Hartland and Saffron Milner combined their superb ensemble work with haunting vocal pieces ably accompanied in pared-down style by Louis Street on piano. The understated choreography added a mood of quiet meditation and kept in step with the more rom-com aspects of the piece, the horrific facts that underpin it.
Well-judged comic turns further added to the pleasing variety of tone, and as these roles were largely shouldered by junior members of the cast, the future’s clearly bright.
RAF doctor Laurie Morgan was suitably madcap in exhorting wounded airman Rufus Thornhill as Bottom in an am-dram performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Ed Pickersgill oozed chirpy confidence in his portrayal of Bob, Peter’s fellow crewmember who dies in the bomber and waits for his skipper to join him, while Harry Waterworth, though a bit longer in the tooth, was equally diverting as the errant Conductor 71.
The final court scenes were well handled, with Dominic Inglis-Jones doing an excellent job as Shakespeare and chief counsel for the prosecution in arguing for Peter’s permanent confinement in Eternity, with Grace Anderson, an uncanny Queen Victoria, in charge. In the end, Peter’s fate is decided on a toss of a coin – life is a game of chance, after all.
Dr Frank Reeves is lynchpin of the action on both this world and the next. He is the man to whom June turns when Peter begins to act peculiarly following his visitations from Conductor 71 (as one might); and he is the man who, after a motorcycle accident, finds himself as chief counsel for the defence, the man responsible for keeping Peter out of heaven and in love and alive back on Earth.
You can imagine Dr Brown’s reaction when her Doc Reeves, Freddie Lawson, went down with the ‘pox… To come into the production so late, Orlando Williams was truly magnificent. On stage, he performed with such presence and confidence (and made a virtue of the clipboard-promptbook with such deft camouflagerie that I had forgotten he was a last-minute replacement).
My wife went along to the final performance – in which a non-contagious Freddie was happily able to take part – and reports he was tremendous too. It must have been of some relief to the rest of the cast to have Freddie back after so many weeks of ensemble rehearsal that they delivered their most nerveless performance on this final night. But it is testament to their collective corps d’esprit that all performed, every single member of the cast and crew, so commandingly over the whole course of a testing three-night run.
Well done all for an entertaining and fitting final production in this historic building that has seen so many in its current guise. Next, cue bulldozers, and a new-look theatre to enter stage-left by next summer.
A gallery of photos can be viewed via this link: A Matter of Life and Death Photo Gallery