Brief Encounter at Empire Cinema Haymarket
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter returns to London’s West End, adapted by indomitable Kneehigh Artistic Director Emma Rice. The stage production of the lovelorn couple has wowed audiences since its first tour in 2008.
Laura (Isabel Pollen) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon) are the two unhappily married lovers, captured here with a deftness and increasingly creative imagination by Rice in collaboration with Kneehigh Theatre. Brief Encounter, written originally by one of Britain’s most prolific playwrights and directed by David Lean in the 1945 movie, tells of the forbidden love affair between these two people. There isn’t anything illicit or indecent about this relationship, instead it feels pure and carries with it a real sense of urgency. From the onset, we are transported into the train station where they first meet, both actors stepping up from the house seats. The audience knows they are witnessing something special and unique. When Laura leaves Alec and goes through the door, she appears instantly on a projection of her living room. Designer Neil Murray’s distinctive take on this is exceptional, merging the modern with the old-fashioned scenes inspired by the film. Idiosyncratic moments of moving locomotives, such as a toy train being deployed by the conductor to smoke exhausted from a coffee machine, make for a striking and constantly intriguing show, one that produces frequent bouts of laughter at the silliness, and reflective contemplation during more melancholic parts.
Invisible rumbling trains pass, the cast exemplifying this with their own shaking movements, and in the scene that starts it all – Laura getting a piece of grit in her eye – the ensemble is relieved when Alec removes it, each acting as a personification of her, which is typical in Rice’s productions. As the director comments, Brief Encounter is “neither a play, nor a musical, a comedy nor a tragedy”, and this is clear in her adaptation. She incorporates several love stories: from the main tale of the the two protagonists’ conflicted feelings and discontent, to teen lovers waitress Beryl (Beverly Rudd) and Stanley (Jos Slovick), as well as the amusing courtship between Albert Godby and Myrtle Bagot – played to hilarious effect by Dean Nolan and Lucy Thackeray.
The production features music heavily, with an ensemble providing jovial melodies as the backdrop to the couple’s meeting, and throughout. In this way, the theatre piece moves away from the film, and can take some getting used to in the contrast to Lean’s more sombre tones and melancholic atmosphere – though there is an exquisite rendition of Rachmaninoff Concerto for Piano No.2 in C Minor. There are stand-out performances by all. An achingly heartbreaking boat scene is accompanied by the equally haunting and beautiful rendition of Go Slow Johnny from talented musician and singer Slovick.
Rice outdoes herself several times in this masterful adaptation. Brief Encounter is nuanced and effecting; it’s evident that the director did not intend to produce a clone of Lean’s movie, yet she remains true to the classic tale. Keeping with Coward’s script, which is given authenticity by the British Received Pronunciation, along with detailed stage and sound design, Rice and her team have successfully placed Laura and Alec’s story at the heart of this timeless romance, which has been voted countless times as one of the greatest in cinematic history.
Photo: Steve Tanner
Brief Encounter is at Empire Cinema Haymarket from 2nd March until 2nd September 2018. Book your tickets here.
Watch the trailer for Brief Encounter here: