Emma Rice and her designer Bill Mitchell, both Kneehigh stalwarts, make thrilling circus-style use of the wide-open Olivier stage to retell the iconic movie story of an RAF pilot without a parachute, who jumps to certain death from his blazing Lancaster bomber. Thanks to an angelic error he survives to fall in love with a WAAF wireless op, but has to face a heavenly tribunal to convince the authorities of his right to live.
The stage version at first sticks closely to Emeric Pressburger’s original screenplay, while more clearly marking the spectral events as the pilot’s brain-damaged visions. But the adaptation wisely ditches the tendentious Anglo-American tensions that marred the film, and with a wholly new courtroom sequence and outcome, it offers an immensely enjoyable evening of physical, musical and dramatic theatre. A half-dozen lively song and dance sequences explore composer Stu Barker’s passion for tango and bossa nova - admittedly with dire lyrics to match.
The limber Tristan Sturrock as Peter and graceful Lyndsey Marshal as June play the lovers with tender passion and commitment, she dangerously clambering to heaven on a stairway of hospital beds. But the centre ground is occupied by Gisli Orn Gardarsson, converting the film’s larky French emissary into a Norwegian escapologist, forever cracking gags while dangling from a rope or disappearing in a puff of smoke. The focus is also on Douglas Hodge, displaying a lyric tenor talent as the ill-fated neurosurgeon whose dazzling ping-pong game with June becomes another cue for music.
Dorothy Atkinson’s sombre figure in black, perhaps Death, emerges as a victim of the Luftwaffe attack on Coventry to make a case against war and the bombing of innocents. But true to Kneehigh’s reputation, this is finally an exuberant exhibition of astonishing physical skills, far more telling than the film’s special effects.