30 January 2018

The second of this term’s three joint senior drama productions took place in the Amey Theatre last week. Based on Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 film, and adapted for the stage by Emma Rice and Tom Morris, A Matter of Life and Death is the wildly romantic tale of Squadron Leader Peter Carter, a British airman who miraculously survives a plane crash and falls in love with June, an Air Force radio operator, only to be summoned to the afterlife by heavenly messenger Conductor 71, to argue before the Supreme Court of Heaven for the right to live.

It's a storyline that poses all sorts of challenges, not least in terms of design. The Amey Theatre technical team of Nick Lloyd, George Killick and Emma Fever rose to the challenge magnificently, creating a versatile set dominated by a sweeping staircase clad in surgical white that contrasted with a black stage floor decorated by a spatter of stars in grey, blue and purple that allowed the lighting – including a cluster of multi-coloured globes hanging above the heads of the audience – to conjure all sorts of moods, as required by the action. The visual spectacle was further enhanced by an array of props and costumes drawn from local and National Theatre sources, as well as some richly cinematic soundscapes and live music (composed by Jason Preece) that allowed the cast to pitch themselves wholeheartedly into the fantastical world of the story.

At the head of a 22-strong cast was U6 drama scholar Joe Salter in the role of Dr Frank Reeves, the local GP and neurological expert who studies Peter Carter’s symptoms and reassures him about the outcome of his appeal to the heavenly court. Joe drove the action forward with a powerful energy and bold physicality, not least in the delightfully choreographed game of table tennis, in which lessons learned from rugby line-out drills proved invaluable as players were lifted high above the stage in slow motion. No less impressive was the elegant figure of Molly Pavord who brought a dancer's grace to the role of Conductor 71, the messenger from the other world who lures Peter Carter heavenwards. Reimagined by directors Jeremy Taylor and Max Hutchinson as Mata Hari, the infamous WW1 courtesan and spy, Molly gave a superb performance as the flamboyant siren figure.

A key device of this production was the double casting of the two central characters, Peter and June. Archie Gittos and drama scholar Arthur Musson shared the role of Squadron Leader Peter Carter, both looking every inch the dashing WW2 bomber pilot in their RAF tunics, silk cravats and specially made Mae West life preservers, while Amelia Wilkinson and Eliza England brought spirited charm to the role of June, the radio operator who intercepts Carter's final messages. They met every challenge head on, whether it was deftly riding a bicycle round the stage or performing a mid-air somersault during the ping pong game.

These leading players received fine support from a multi-roling ensemble, drawn largely from Abingdon's Year 10 drama cohort. They looked superb in their surgical scrubs and period uniforms and grew into their characterisations throughout the production week, enlarging the scale of their performances to fill the large auditorium. Silas Gill, Abingdon drama scholars Charlie Masters and Sam King, and St Helen's student Alix Addinall especially drew the eye in their various incarnations.

All in all, A Matter of Life and Death was a feast for the senses that combined whimsical humour with thoughtful reflections on the nature of life and death. After each performance, audiences donated more than £250 in support of Tom's Woodland Fund, a project that aims to create a piece of public woodland near Abingdon in memory of Tom Quick, a talented and charismatic young man who died in January 2017 at the age of 29. For further details, please follow this link.

We now look forward to this week's joint senior production at St Helen's – the hugely popular and timeless music theatre classic, Fiddler on the Roof. Tickets can be secured here.

We hope to see you there!

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