Empire Cinema Haymarket, London – until 2 September 2018
Brief Encounter, judged the most romantic film of all time and the second greatest British film ever, now returns to the stage in a magical revival from Emma Rice and Kneehigh.
Despite its filmic location, the auditorium in Screen 1 at the Empire Cinema Haymarket has been given over to one of the most enchanting, exhilarating and joyous stage productions ever created in Britain. It was probably no coincidence that Rice, and the producers, led by old romantics David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers, decided on Mother’s Day to bring back this show which is every bit as iconic as the film it references.
David Lean’s 1945 wartime weepie, from a script by Noël Coward, is about the fleeting affair of a bored suburban housewife and mother-of-two, who risks everything for a man who takes a little bit of grit from her eye at a train station cafe. For Coward, it was more than a simple love story. It echoed his own feelings about forbidden love.
Unable to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality he, as so many gay people had to, led a double-life, hiding behind a cloak of respectability and acquiescing to society’s demands.
Emma Rice debuted her stage adaptation of Brief Encounter just over a decade ago when she was artistic director of Kneehigh. Since then she has had her own fleeting affair as artistic director of The Globe. Now, looking at this triumphant and innovative piece of storytelling, you have to be thankful that her indie spirit wasn’t quashed by her sojourn to the South Bank. The Globe’s considerable loss is the insurmountable gain of independent theatre.
We welcome this much-loved director back to a working environment where she can let her imagination soar once again. Her production is immaculate, breathing new life into the musical drama genre with unorthodox and ingenious stagecraft.
The anarchic thinking behind any Kneehigh show makes the company look like nothing else. The off-the-wall and quirky presentation is a sheer delight. You’re smiling like an imbecile before the curtain goes up and long after it comes down, with, perhaps a snivel or two along the way.
Brief Encounter centres around an unlikely love triangle. Laura, the epitome of middle-class respectability, from her sensible pale blue tweed suit to her conservative hair and make-up, catches the train each Thursday to do a little shopping, lunch and take in a matinee before returning to dull and dependable Fred and the kids.
She waits for her train in the station buffet where a snobbish Myrtle Bagot overcharges for bath buns and tea, and her comical assistant, the none-too-bright Beryl, skivvies while flirting with Stanley who sells chocolate bars to passengers.
One day Laura returns to the cafe asking for help as she has a smut in her eye.
A handsome stranger steps forward to help. Idealistic local GP Alec Harvey saves the day and the pair strike up a civilised friendship.
But the couple risk their marriages and reputations as they fall madly in love.
Rice’s production is filled with clever set pieces. The extensive use of video back-cloths allow the splicing of both film and theatre into one seamless show.
The support cast play a variety of parts, ranging from ushers welcoming the audience to the drama, to a roaming and onstage band.
The hard-working, and always brilliantly inventive, Beverly Rudd switches effortlessly from giggly teenage Beryl, to Laura’s garrulous and interfering friends and neighbours.
A surprisingly athletic Dean Nolan gives a moving turn as faithful Fred, swaps with ease to play amorous stationmaster Albert Godby and adds cool affection to play Alec’s unwitting confidente and fellow doctor Stephen Lynn.
Lucy Thackeray is inspired as lonely Mrs Bagot, a bit of a mature blonde bombshell, whose voice alters depending on which class of customer she’s talking to.
She may just run a train station cafe but it’s her little kingdom and she’s not going to let anyone forget it.
This unashamedly romantic show features outstanding turns by Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon as Laura and Alec.
Pollen’s face is a picture of frustration and boredom. Her eyes burn with rage as she tries to come to terms with the affair. It’s deeply moving and utterly compelling.
She sits watching Fred smoke his pipe and do a crossword and it speaks for millions of women who were trapped in similar circumstances without the option of divorce. The scandal would have been too much to bear.
Later, we are with her as all-consuming guilt almost drives her to suicide.
Sturgeon’s upstanding Alec is charming, everything we want in a hero – except, of course, that he has a wife and two boys at home, the love-rat.
But, gosh, how could she not fall in love with him? He’s her knight in shining armour.
He’s a complete contrast to the dull-as-dishwater Fred, whose heart is in the right place, and who probably knows his own failings, but is helpless to prevent his wife’s infidelity.
You may find, by the finish, that you’ve got a little bit of grit in your eye too.
Don’t be afraid to be swept along with this exquisitely flawless production.
Brief Encounter runs at the Empire Cinema Haymarket until September 2.
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