Empire Cinema Haymarket, London – until 2 September 2018
Ten years ago Emma Rice and her Kneehigh group brought this adaptation of Noel Coward’s heartrending film to the stage – to a cinema stage, artfully and merrily referencing the golden age of cinemagoing. And we all found it utterly adorable. Irresistible. On the far side of her brief unhappy tenure at the Globe, here it comes again, with a few fine tweaks, to remind us what Rice does best, and how playful, inventive, sincere and inspiring Kneehigh can be when it beats its own path through the woods.
Especially when bouncing off beloved classics (their Rebecca was terrific). Indeed this revamped version of Alec and Laura’s story is even better, now with all its songs from Coward himself (I’d forgotten ‘Go Slow Johnny’ – “you’re no Brando, Rallentando”.). It’s a little classic in its own right, from the breathtaking moment when the real guilty lovers are sitting in the audience with us in the Empire, and Laura’s husband calls her from the black and white screen… and she plunges through it, away from the living passionate Alec and back into her monochrome home life.
My daughter hadn’t even known the film, and she loved it: for those who do, there is no jarring in the vaudevillian opening-out of the action with larky refreshment room and station staff (Dean Nolan as Godby is a right caution, as we’d have said in the ’50s .
The live band onstage and the songs, especially from Jos Slovick, take nothing at all away from the simple doomed romance but actually add to it. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are not traduced here but worthily reborn in Jim Surgeon and Isabel Pollen, not stilted but delicately in period, respectable folk of the 1930s swept up in the crashing waves of the Warsaw Concerto.
But the layering of the three romances is perfect as a counterpoint to the exalted impossibility of their great non-affair. Stanley and Beryl (Beverly Rudd in all her glorious cartoon performances is another caution) are free to slap-and-tickle with the insouciance of fresh youth, Nolan and Kieve represent a middle-aged, battered kind of freedom. Love is all around, but only the principals can get nowhere.
The staging is even more fun than last time, with no fewer than four ways of making trains pass the station: entire cast juddering in time for the Express, once a toy train, once Beryl dashing through with a smoke-canister, and two kinds of projection, large and small. It’s Kneehigh, sky-high. Glorious.