DramaFeaturedNorth WestReview

Brief Encounter- Octagon Theatre, Bolton

David Cunningham

Writer: Noël Coward

Adaptor: Emma Rice

Director: Paul Robinson

Brief Encounter, adapted for the stage by Emma Rice, opens before the show starts and begins at the end.

Noël Coward’s story explores the ecstasy and agony of love. Housewife Laura (Anne-Marie Piazza) and general practitioner Alec (Pete Ashmore) have a brief accidental encounter in a railway station café. Further encounters follow each one increasingly less accidental before the couple acknowledge they have fallen in love, which is a problem as both are already married and too decent to hurt their families.

Brief Encounter balances the grand passion of love against the dull mundanity of everyday life. As the audience enters the theatre tea ladies Natasha Lewis and Lara Lewis are already on stage in character cheerfully gossiping while pianist Alex Weatherhill and bass player Maximillian Lamprecht play tunes from the pre-World War II period. Ushers in bright uniforms wander the aisles chatting with patrons. It sets the mood of a more relaxed innocent period than the present day when love affairs simply did not happen. Actually, the play is taut and full of suspense as the lovers are constantly looking over their shoulders, always aware of the consequences of being observed and tormented by guilt.  Typical of a show that displays the pain endured by ordinary people caught up in events beyond their control the play opens with lovers desperately trying to share intimacies while being ‘shushed’ by the ushers.

Adaptor Emma Rice and director Paul Robinson create a stylised exaggerated background against which events are staged. Most of the cast play multiple roles and the characters are written a bit larger than life- almost stereotypes. Anne-Marie Piazza and Pete Ashmore on the other hand play the lovers dead straight draining every drop of agonised emotion from the roles but even so, from time to time, they stagger as sound effects drench them in a wave of passion. The overall mood is one of frustration and unfulfilled desire. The lovers are constantly interrupted by trivial issues – gossiping friends, or worse, friends who seem to understand what is going on. The couple are always having to interrupt moments of passion to rush for trains or attend to families. Piazza and Ashmore create pressure-cooker intensity – Laura sets out the reasons the affair must end and although Alec agrees he cannot stop touching her.

Other, arguably less powerful, aspects of love are explored by the secondary characters – shy, flirtatious or even bawdy. But all are allocated the same level of respect – even if played for comedy love is not treated lightly. When words fail the characters resort to music with a lovers’ tiff being played out as a duet between trombone and saxophone.

The period is treated as one in which emotions are tightly restrained which adds to the drama and suspense. A great deal is left unsaid between the characters and remarks are loaded with implications. The lovers realise their affair is becoming common knowledge when they are recognised as regular customers in the café. The closest Robert Jackson, as Laura’s decent-but-dull husband, gets to acknowledging her possible infidelity is to thank her for coming home. In the film version Laura is allowed an inner monologue in which she can express her feelings, on-stage she is denied such relief and the only option open to her is to pound the piano keys in frustration.

Although not a musical the adaptation is a play with music using songs by Coward, arranged by Simon Slater, to startling effect. Generally, they are sung as written, lightly with an ironic undertone, to explore varieties of love. But Go Slow, Johnny, is delivered as an ominous warning. Having been shamed by a friend uncovering the love affair an embittered Alec spits out the lyrics to the normally light-hearted A Room With A View as if he has a noose around his neck.

This adaptation has previously been staged in a full bells and whistles version by Kneehigh Theatre. The more austere approach taken in the current version better suits the period and illustrates the drab background from which love lifts the characters making Brief Encounter an intoxicating, compelling demonstration of the power of love and essential viewing.

Runs until 5 November, 2022

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Love hurts

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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