Brief Encounter by Noel Coward, adapted by Emma Rice
Empire Cinema Haymarket, short walk from Piccadilly Circus, until 2nd September, 2018
90 minutes, no interval
Veronica Stein, 13th March, 2018.
Definitely worth encountering the real thing
Laura somehow gets a bit of grit in her eye on the Milford Junction train platform. Alec, a doctor, comes to her rescue and they strike up a conversation that is the beginning of their romance. Playing out over train platforms along with the couplings of the zany railway refreshment staff, they meet weekly and swiftly fall in love. The only problem? They’re both married. With children.
Noel Coward’s Still Life was immortalized on film in Brief Encounter, which Emma Rice and Kneehigh have been bringing back to the stage for the better part of the last decade. The cinematic legacy of Brief Encounter is utilized often and expeditiously. The production is staged in the Empire Cinema and the ensemble cast are introduced to us as singing ushers. In some of the most brilliant stagecraft of the entire production (which is significant as the standard is very high in true Kneehigh tradition), actors walk through slits in screens to immediately appear through projection- the effect is dazzling and transportative, and much of the aesthetic of Brief Encounter follows suit. From twee trains being dragged across the stage to wonderfully manipulated puppet children and shih tzu-esque puppers, the piece is evocative and takes joy in its multi-dimensionality. Though some bits falter (mainly the chandelier floating touted on all of Brief Encounter’s advertising) the design on all counts as well as the direction provide an unpredictable edge to a beloved story.
Beverly Rudd and Lucy Thackeray as Beryl ad Myrtle, respectively, are the comedic backbone. As their station refreshment workers, they are wonderfully fleshed out and provide welcome relief with both bawdier comic elements and vaudevillian musical numbers. They are complimented by the fantastic Dean Nolan whose showmanship is almost unparalleled in the rest of the cast, and Jos Slovick, whose voice is the stuff of dreams. Regardless of the partially poor integration of their characters to the central narrative and the sometimes disparate functions they fulfill in their multi-roling, these four are absolutely brilliant. Jim Sturgeon as Alec and Isabel Pollen as Laura are effective in their typically English inhibitions and really hit peak profundity as their guilt balloons, especially Pollen, whose near-suicide is one of the high points of the production. Unfortunately, their initial meeting doesn’t seem quite sparky enough to validate their affair- whether this is down to to the direction or to the performances is hard to say.
Brief Encounter is littered with moments of astounding boldness, mostly manifesting in retooled Coward songs and clever effects. Though some of these risks don’t exactly pay off, Coward’s writing maintains the substance as well as the style. In making the cinematic theatrical Emma Rice has, in spectacular fashion, rendered an adaptation worth a watch and a discussion. Hurtling to a remarkable conclusion, Brief Encounter sets out from the very beginning to deliver the expected in an unexpected fashion. It succeeds.
Male Ensemble / Understudy: Peter Dukes
Female Ensemble / Understudy: Katrina Kleve
Fred / Albert: Dean Nolan
Laura: Isabel Pollen
Beryl: Beverly Rudd
Stanley / Usher / Bill: Jos Slovick
Alec: Jim Sturgeon
Myrtle: Lucy Thackeray
Director: Emma Rice
Designer: Neil Murray
Lighting Designer: Malcolm Rippeth
Video Design: John Driscoll and Gemma Carrington
Sound Designer: Simon Baker
Musical Director: Stu Barker