Writer: Noel Coward
Adapter: Emma Rice
Director: Paul Robinson
True and poignant as Anne-Marie Piazza and Pete Ashmore are as Laura and Alec, in this adaptation of David Lean’s 1945 film, Brief Encounter, it’s the sheer exuberance of Emma Rice’s adaptation and Paul Robinson’s direction, not to mention the energy and versatility of the ensemble, that are burnt deepest on the memory.
Emma Rice is one of the conundrums of British theatre, wildly inventive but often inclined to excess, and the original production of this adaptation in 2008 by Kneehigh Theatre, with filmed inserts, received mixed reviews. However, played in the round with Jessica Curtis’ simple set consisting of an article of furniture (for instance, a dual-purpose tea-room counter and chest of drawers-come-gramophone) at each point of the compass, with sound and lighting (Simon Slater and Sally Ferguson) brilliantly conveying the arrival of trains and much else besides, it’s a total success. Robinson uses the whole of the theatre, Curtis produces miracles of quick change costumes and the cast frequently seems about twice its real number of seven!
Robinson deliberately blurs the lines between reality and fiction. Before the start Joey Hickman and Rishi Manuel roam the auditorium as ushers, Natasha Lewis (as Myrtle) tries to get the attention of Beryl (Lara Lewis) who is more interested in tracking down a wandering cat and Robert Jackson as Albert calls the arrival of trains. Alex Weatherhill at the piano entertains us with Tea for Two, Pennies from Heaven and the like while the ushers have a little sing. It’s all very informal until we start the play where the film ends, with protestations of love from Laura and Alec and husband Fred welcoming Laura’s return to him.
Emma Rice boosts the sexual activity of the supporting cast. Myrtle, the tea-room owner, and Albert, the ticket inspector, clearly get up to all sorts, while tea-room assistant Beryl has a beau of her own in Stanley (Joey Hickman), imported from the original play, Still Life. The first of nine songs, either by Noel Coward or lyrics by him and music by Simon Slater, is a stunning song-and-dance for Beryl and Stanley on the delightfully silly sort-of-love-song Any Little Fish. Later Albert and Myrtle have an irresistible tango with saxophone and trombone expressing their relationship – the basic piano-and-double bass accompaniment is boosted by cast members joining in throughout the evening.
Once again respectability is the curse of the middle-class: Anne-Marie Piazza and Pete Ashmore, as Laura and Alec, vividly convey the sense of society closing in when disapproving friend Stephen and overpowering gossip Dolly know their secret. The moment when, after innocently eating together or going to the cinema, they realise that they are in too deep comes, appropriately enough, after a soaking when out boating. To the accompaniment of Go Slow, Johnny they undress very slowly in a telling last scene of Act One. Thereafter Act Two is decidedly more serious as Alec’s nonchalant worldliness and Laura’s bright conventionality prove inadequate.
Runs until 27th August 2022, before touring.