Empire Cinema Haymarket, London – until 2 September 2018
It’s set to be quite a year for Emma Rice. With The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk off on tour (around the UK and US) and a couple of productions left in the Winter Selection at Shakespeare’s Globe, she now adds a revival of Brief Encounter to the list. It has already had short runs in Birmingham and Salford, but now has a six-month residency at the Empire Cinema Haymarket ahead of it, in conjunction with the Old Vic.
The show is a marriage of the 1936 play (Still Life) and 1946 film, both written by Noël Coward – so where better to showcase it than an actual cinema? It adds that extra little touch of magic that I’ve come to expect from Rice. From the moment you arrive it feels like you’ve stepped back in time, as members of the cast (dressed as ushers) help you to your seats and perform a few songs around the auditorium; this is not simply a play, it is an experience.
It revolves around three couples: Stanley and Beryl, Albert and Myrtle, and Alec and Laura. The latter are married to other people, already with families of their own, but are drawn to each other following a series of chance meetings – they know it can’t be sustained, but the freedom their love brings is irresistible for a while. The others have a bit more luck, as they are unattached to begin with. Young love is there in the form of Stanley and Beryl, and Albert and Myrtle represent second chances for the previously unlucky in love. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of darkness and light, reflecting the nature of life itself.
Visually speaking, the show is an absolute treat. As an ode to the cinema, it becomes a proper multimedia experience; projections (Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington) are used to perfection, as they portray a character’s inner thoughts and feelings, set the scene, or even allow people to cross from the stage onto the screen. Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design hits the spot once again, subtly highlighting Neil Murray’s set and drawing the audience in.
Rice’s direction makes clever use of every space possible, taking advantage of two levels onstage as well as sending her actors out into the audience. She has also included a brilliant new contender for the Best Mobile Announcement crown, with Dean Nolan giving the audience little choice but to switch their phones off! Movement is always key in Rice’s productions, and it is exquisitely fluid in this show – as well as including some terrifically fun pieces of choreography. Any Little Fish (Stanley & Beryl) and So Good At Love (Albert & Myrtle) are definitely standout moments, and tremendous entertainment value.
A range of Noël Coward’s own songs have been included in the production – some are entirely his own compositions, others are set to music by Stu Barker. This is a nice touch, as you feel like the same voice is there throughout while Emma Rice pays homage to Coward’s work and human insight. A fantastic set of musicians (including Kneehigh regulars Seamas Carey and Pat Moran) are on hand to play these wonderful pieces of music, joined by members of the cast to play and sing.
I could probably write an essay on all of the brilliant performances on show, but for now I’ll keep it brief (as befits the show!). Lucy Thackeray is perfectly cast as Myrtle, a woman who aspires to sophistication, but can’t keep her true voice & nature under wraps – especially if someone dares to cast aspersions on the freshly baked cakes she is selling!
The pairing of Jos Slovick and Beverly Rudd is an utter dream: they are both absolutely hilarious, delivering some fantastically funny lines and demonstrating expertise in physical comedy, and their singing voices are a great fit together. Isabel Pollen & Jim Sturgeon capture the seriousness of Laura & Alec’s situation, as well as the contrasting moments of sheer joy – their swinging on the chandeliers is the picture of unadulterated bliss.
My verdict? A love letter to stage & screen, beautifully conceived and immaculately performed – the show of the year so far.