Noel Coward’s one act, STILL LIFE, was expanded into the beautiful film, BRIEF ENCOUNTER starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Now, Director/Adaptor Emma Rice and England’s Kneehigh Theatre have gone back to the stage with the screenplay of BRIEF ENCOUNTER. The result is a 39 STEPS type of stylized comic treatment, except that the pathos is still warm and truthful. Added into the mix are projections by Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll and original songs by Stu Baker. This was not a musical per se, but characters did break into songs which revealed character. Other songs were used to serenade the action. The ensemble of actors could all sing and play multiple instruments. The lead singer of the group, Daniel Canham, had a delightful vocal quality and played string instruments as well as the character of Bill. The story follows the accidental meeting and short lived love affair of Laura and Alec. Hannah Yelland as Laura, played the comic style while simultaneously bringing forth the sadness and real dramatic conflict required of the role. Tristan Sturrock, who has been a regular actor with Kneehigh Theatre for the past twenty years made an admirable Alec, managing those 1930s overly romantic lines with passion and credibility––not to mention a humble and sweet singing voice.
Taking place in an English train station refreshment cafe and populated by the variety of workers typical of such a place, the story showed various couplings in the early stages of romance. But, the central couple is misguidedly embarking on a romance for they are each married with young children. They meet on Thursdays over a period of several weeks, falling in love quickly and feeling guilty about their relationship, but unable to let go of it until Alec is offered a job that will take him to Africa. The romance awakens these two people––perhaps jolting them into change that will open up their futures to greater things. The relationship has its place and purpose after all and although it is an adulterous one, it is hard to not sympathize with their situation. One thing that makes it easier to accept is that Coward wisely does not introduce us to Alec’s wife and children, so we have no affection for them. Laura’s family is seen, but here the children are clever puppets and the husband (Joseph Alessi) is depicted as a kindly bore, uninterested in Laura’s life outside the home, unconcerned with how his children are parented and mostly concerned with his crossword puzzles. We sort want her to escape such an unexciting world––at least we can’t blame her when she meets her enthusiastic doctor. However, some of what makes Alec so attractive in the movie is missing from this play––mainly his description of his great dream of promoting preventative medicine. Still, charm comes in other ways––namely through the music and dynamic performances from a multitalented cast.
The production was as much the star as any one actor in it. The projections say that this play was once a movie (rather well known at that) and that although that movie will be lovingly honored, it will also be torn apart, re-imagined, and explored in new ways. Laura and Alec start their first seen from the audience, as if they were at the movies. On a screen there is, we are told, a movie called “Brief Encounter” showing. Laura’s husband walks into the frame, looks out to the audience and calls for Laura to come back. Eventually she leaves Alec in the audience and literally steps into the movie screen, transforming into a projected image. Her world is a black and white movie––she is stuck in the frame. Off screen is the train station cafe, Alec and a bright and colorful world. The story is as compelling in this new stage adaptation as it is a film. The production is innovative, endlessly creative, musically enchanting, sad and quite hilarious all at once. I’m not sure what gets knocked off the list, but BRIEF ENCOUNTER now ranks as one of the top ten best productions I’ve seen in New York in the past ten years––a highlight of the decade.