Writer: Noël Coward
Adaptor/Director: Emma Rice
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Noël Coward’s 1938 film Brief Encounter, as directed by David Lean, is often rightly cited amongst the most romantic films of all time. An expanded version of Coward’s short stage play Still Life, the story of Laura and Alec, two genteel, starched people relaxing while in each other’s company and out of the gaze of their respective spouses, hinted at a greater depth to the stiff-upper-lip British archetype.
That sense of intense, sensual tenderness is carried over into Emma Rice’s adaptation for Kneehigh
Theatre, which returns to the West End in a staging at the Empire Cinema on Haymarket. The choice is both illustrative – Rice’s show is ever aware of its cinematic origins, something of which she takes bounteous use throughout – and practical. Like many arts buildings of its era, it started life as a theatre before being converted to concentrate on the showing of movies.
The result is a building which retains the semblance of period, faded charm – an ideal setting for a production which both harks back to a simpler age and yet revels in breaking theatrical norms. For while Brief Encounter is a loving recreation of Coward’s film, and uses several of Coward’s songs (popular standards A Room with a View and Mad About the Boy to lesser-known later works including Go Slow Johnny and No Good at Love) it is also a broad comedy.
As Rice showed in Romantics Anonymous, her magical musical produced for the Globe last year, romance is never more emotional than when paired with slapstick. It’s a combination she honed here, taking the film’s caricatured supporting characters and bringing them to life. Most of this is down to Beverly Rudd, whose put-upon café assistant Beryl can often be found at the heart of the comedic action. Nearly matching her is Lucy Thackeray as Beryl’s boss Myrtle Bagot. Thackeray’s accent is perfectly placed for 1940s cinema, as an RP-speaking actor playing a lower class woman with pretensions to the middle classes.
Musically, in typically Kneehigh fashion an onstage band is regularly supplemented by cast members. Most accomplished of these is Jos Slovick, who couples his playing of the double bass and ukulele with the superbly smooth vocal stylings of a matinée idol of the era. Rice uses song in Brief Encounter to underline emotion rather than to directly express it, as more conventional musicals may do. And that fits perfectly with the original notion that clipped vowels and perfect manners mask the turbulent emotions within.
And of course, with all the visual fripperies – actors walking into cinema screens, puppets representing Laura’s children, even a brief flying sequence – it is the relationship between the central couple that all this services. Isobel Pollen‘s Laura bears the sadness of her character’s home life on her stoic shoulders, the signs of her increased joy when meeting Alec conveyed in subtle shifts of carriage.
Jim Sturgeon’s Alec gains no backstory explaining why he is tempted into infidelity, which both allows Laura to take centre stage in the story whilst also making her the only one of the pair to exhibit guilt towards the husband on whom she is cheating. But the charm and happiness both characters enjoy in each other’s company is infectious: and Coward’s downbeat ending, which is tear-jerking on film, is heart-breaking in person.
Romantics Anonymous may have ended 2017 by showing that Emma Rice’s love of romance and comedy was too large for the Globe to contain. Reviving Brief Encounter shows that last year’s success did not come out of nowhere: the West End has acquired a revival that takes one of cinema’s most romantic productions, and weaves a different, equally impactful magic on stage.
Runs until 2 September 2018 | Image: Contributed