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