For the first few minutes of Brief Encounter, I think I might have wandered into a screening of Are You Being Served by mistake – there is more than a touch of Mrs Slocombe in Lucy Thackerey’s portrayal of cafe manager Myrtle Bagot. Then, in contrast, we meet the earnest, lovestruck couple – Laura (Isabel Pollen) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon), complete with 1930s breathy voices and stylised, stilted dialogue. At this point I have a sense of dread – I just know I’m going to hate this. But, actually, not so; Emma Rice’s direction turns these inauspicious beginnings into a show which is a pot pourri of imaginative and ambitious visual delights.
Based on a Noel Coward play, Brief Encounter was made famous by David Lean’s film starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Set in England in 1938, it features a respectable, married, middle-class housewife who meets and falls illicitly in love with a respectable, married, middle-class doctor. And, as we all know, it ends in tears. Kneehigh’s production is very much an homage to the film, both in content and presentation. Against a backdrop of black-and-white filmed sequences, the original story is played out in a style firmly rooted in the 1930s, deliberately replicating the stiff and restrictive social mores of the time. Although the themes (of love and desire versus obligation and responsibility) are themselves timeless, this re-telling feels remote and dated and … well … rather dull and soul-less. The ending doesn’t get anywhere near tear-jerker level, and, indeed, the main poignancy is provided by Laura’s husband (played as part of a brilliant multi-role performance by Dean Nolan). But, thankfully, this whole scenario is very effectively juxtaposed with a rather less formal – indeed positively raucous – set of developing love-interests based in the famous railway cafe. These provide warmth and humour and the requisite degree of crowd-pleasing naughtiness.
Story-wise, it’s all pretty insubstantial. But no matter – it’s the staging that turns this into a wonderful show. Rice and her creative team pull out all the stops. Despite a range of different scene locations (station platform, cafes/restaurants, Laura’s home, a friend’s apartment and a boating lake), the transitions are managed seamlessly due to Neil Murray’s cleverly conceived set design and the use of a massive screen backdrop. Projected images convey emotions as well as settings and characters move (literally) in and out of them. Train models, scooters and fluffy dog toys on rigid leads are all deployed to good comic effect. And the use of puppetry to represent Laura’s children provides both humour and pathos.
While the devices don’t all hit the mark (a chandelier-swinging scene feels like a clumsy pastiche of La La Land, in which the actors look uncomfortable and ungainly), the overall effect is visually rich and totally absorbing. And it is further enhanced by some excellent musical accompaniment (composed and directed by Stu Barker) and sound design (by Simon Baker).
All of the different elements of the piece come together in a superb two-part scene at a boating lake. Watched onstage by the other actors and musicians, Laura and Alec sit in a wooden boat. Actor Dean Nolan playfully (and with great relish) provides various hazards (waving a branch over them, flicking them with water) – thereby leavening the earnestness of the romantic dialogue. The rest of the scene takes place out of the now-upturned boat, where the ill-fated couple remove their ‘wet’ outer clothing in a highly stylised sequence which takes place in almost-but-not-quite slow motion. Behind them, comic actor Beverly Rudd hilariously mimics them and supplies sound effects, soaking and wringing out a cloth in a bucket of water. And all the while, actor/musician Jos Slovik looks on, plays the ukulele and sings a haunting song in a velvet voice which resonates throughout the theatre. The lighting has softened and yellowed and the wooden planks of the backdrop boat-shed image are blue-grey. It is strikingly beautiful – like a shot from a Wes Anderson film. I would watch the show again for this scene alone.
Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter may be built around a very familiar story but it is a production full of surprises. It is not ashamed to play for easy laughs with simple slapstick and music-hall-type routines, but it also impresses with its imaginative and sophisticated theatricality. Romantic musicals are really not my genre, and the central narrative here does not particularly engage me. But the production is tremendous, and in the end I have to concur with the murmurs of appreciation I hear all around me as the audience leaves the theatre. A thoroughly enjoyable experience.