Empire Cinema Haymarket, London – until 2 September 2018
I’ve known for a while that Edward Albee wanted Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to be a quartet for four gay men, and pondered how Noel Coward’s Private Lives would work if all four partners were also male. But until seeing this refreshed version of Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter and reading her programme notes, had not considered that the illicit affair of Laura and Alec – played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the 1945 film – might be code for forbidden gay love.
So different is the morality of 1938 from today’s that it’s a perfectly valid suggestion that Coward might – in portraying two people so trapped in their social conventions they are unable to acknowledge and act on the love they share – be identifying the problems of gay men at the time. It is also set in the same period as Quentin Crisp’s twilight-world adventures later revealed in The Naked Civil Servant.
I think it’s more likely that Coward, trapped between his own personal horror of buggery and fawning attention of the London elites, would not have been so bold as to do this deliberately, but it’s an added layer of amusement to apply to Kneehigh’s bold and mostly enjoyable staging of the classic film.
Rice has opened out the story from the realistic three-hankie weepie at its centre, well delivered by Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon, to a railway-station romp with characters played to cartoonish effect but by seriously excellent actors such as Beverly Rudd’s gawp of a tearoom waitress, overseen by Lucy Thackeray’s starched-apron-over-voluptuous-femme-fatale manageress Myrtle.
Best of all, actor-musician Jos Slovick plays Rudd’s anxious suitor Stanley with delicious awkwardness contrasting his remarkable singing and musicianship in many of Coward’s numbers which have been seductively rearranged at slow, bluesy tempi to give them new meaning and depth by Kneehigh’s Stu Barker.
Pollen’s shows Laura’s many moods beautifully – and when she returns home at the end, opens the piano and mimes playing to the climax of the film it’s convincing, but I thought what a tremendous coup de theatre it would be if Rice had actually found an actress who could play the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto.
The interactive movie footage is well done, there are trains enough to satisfy the most diligent railway enthusiast and the breaking waves motif is clever. Maybe it’s a pity they couldn’t have intercut some of the David Lean film, it’s still a classic.
But, in its own way, so is this production.