Brief Encounter – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: Noël Coward, adapted by Emma Rice

Director: Emma Rice

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

David Lean’s 1945 film, Brief Encounter, scripted by Nöel Coward, is often towards the top of Best Films of … lists, and deservedly so. The combination of the story of two people trapped in their predictable middle-class lives who glimpse a possible escape caught the imagination of the public. That screenplay was itself based on an earlier short play by Coward from 1936: Still Life. Adapter and Director, Emma Rice, has drawn from both these resources to produce a faithful but distinctly modern take on Coward’s tale for Kneehigh Theatre, originally produced in conjunction with Birmingham REP in 2007 to great acclaim. Has this newly revived adaptation, like the film, stood the test of time?

The set is sparse and very contemporary with what appear to be scaffolding towers on either side of the stage that occasionally are joined by a bridge that allows our characters to hurry to their respective trains. Monochrome projections help us to fix locations in our minds. A plush curtain occasionally comes down as the set is redressed and the period feel is reinforced by songs from cast members that support the action and feelings so far.  And at the start and end, a screen is used to recreate the feel of a cinema, a worthy homage to the original film.

The use of music from onstage musicians, elements of physicality and puppetry set this out as a uniquely Kneehigh production. But these elements are never intrusive; they all help support and carry the narrative. Rice has produced a human scale story of humour, poignancy and the ability of the human spirit to endure.

Yes: this production has indeed stood the test of time and is an early must-see of 2018.

On Milford Junction station there is a bustling tea room. Mrs Bagot (Lucy Thackeray) rules with a rod of iron, ordering the hapless Beryl (Beverly Rudd) and the slow-witted Stanley (Jos Slovick) around like a sergeant-major. Meanwhile, Mrs B and Station Master Albert (Dean Nolan) are at the early stages of romance, as are Beryl and Stanley. The development of these two couples’ relationships is interleaved with and complements the main story of the budding romance between Alec (Jim Sturgeon) a GP who comes to the rescue of Laura (Isabel Pollen) when she gets some grit in her eye from a passing train on her regular Thursday jaunt into town. We learn little about Alec but we do learn that Laura is dissatisfied in her marriage to Fred (played with great poignancy by Dean Nolan) and the routine her life has fallen into. The attraction between Alec and Laura is immediate and they continue meeting clandestinely barely daring to admit that they might each be falling in love with a relative stranger: so we see joyful trips to tea rooms and a glorious day at the boating lake. However, Laura also feels increasingly uncomfortable even as she enjoys Alec’s company and becomes distant from Fred. Things come to a head and decisions have to be made: there is no ‘good’ outcome in this situation.

Sturgeon and Pollen are excellent as the couple suddenly in turmoil. The combination of middle-class correctness and angst is contrasted nicely with the joy they feel when together. Sturgeon’s accent does occasionally stray north of the border rather than remaining as clipped King’s English, but that matters not; indeed, one might argue that it happens at times of great emotion and is a subtle marker of his inner state. The supporting stories are truly delightful. Rudd demonstrates great comic timing and physicality, mugging her way through the romance with Stanley, also demonstrating a very fine singing voice. Slovick, too, sings very well, his voice harmonising with Rudd’s particularly well. Although much of the comedy verges on farce and slapstick, it never detracts from the tender stories at the heart of the piece; indeed, the intensity of Sturgeon and Pollen benefits from the touch of light relief the comedy provides. The slightly on-off nature of Mrs B’s romance with Albert is also delightfully done.

With no interval, the end, like a great steam express itself, comes charging along and one can’t quite see where the time has gone – a great compliment to Rice and Coward.

This cannot be recommended highly enough as the outcome of a singular vision that is full of nostalgia while being totally up-to-date.

Runs until 17 February 2018 and on tour | Image: Contributed

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An early must-see of 2018

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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  1. Brief Encounter is one of my favourite films, it has its roots on the stage and I am a keen theatre goer. What could possibly go wrong? As it turned out, lots.

    I think the producer must have been tripping on some strong hallucinogen when this treatment of the classic story formed in her addled brain. How else would it occur to anyone to make Brief Encounter as a musical comedy? And I use the word “comedy” advisedly. This truly was abysmal, sub-Chuckle Brothers comedic fare. As for Beverly Rudd, the darling of the critics, she steals every scene in which she appears. But not in a good way. Someone must have told her she’s hilarious but, take it from me, Bev, you really aren’t. There is a scene where the two leads are eating in a restaurant and Rudd plays the part of the waitress waiting their table. For some unfathomable reason Rudd’s waitress hams it up a la Julie Walters in the classic “Two Soups” sketch from the Victoria Wood show. It’s hammy, ham-fisted and not remotely funny. Furthermore, this all happens in what is supposed to be a poignant scene in terms of the main story. I say “main story” but in this production the main focus seems to be on other stories involving what should actually be the peripheral characters.

    And what was that film of the underwater swimmer, projected onto the big screen, all about? Or the actors throwing their arms behind themselves when someone enters an interior scene from “outside”. Bizarre, to say the least.

    I could go on, I really could.

    And, to cap it all, there was no interval. If there had been, you wouldn’t have seem me for dust at that point. Being slap bang in the middle of a row, my wife (who, incidentally, shares my opinion of the play) and I had to sit through the whole sorry performance. This had to be the longest hour and a half of my life.

  2. I saw this at the Lowry last night. I second Mr. Woodin’s opinion entirely.

    The performance was a crass mangle of what is a raw and tender story, made hackneyed and dull, thanks to the bizarre decision to crowbar in musical theatre, silly walks and farce.

    What’s especially frustrating is that the actors, in the round, were capable (aside from the buffoonery) as were the musicians. It’s only a shame that they were put to spending their talents on butchering a sad and gentle story of doomed lovers.

    The set’s use of screens as a medium to communicate was at best unnecessary and at worst lazy and pointless for narrative development.

    In short imagine Romeo and Juliet played at the circus, overseen by a director with no clear vision of how to tell a story of this nature.

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