Words by Lucy Mounfield
Heading to the Birmingham REP for Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, I pondered what might be in store. Kneehigh always produce imaginative and lively productions, where music, dance and high theatricality have all play a large part in developing the atmosphere.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips utilised puppetry, the carnivalesque, lindy hop, music, extensive props and costume changes to aid the story-telling, and this worked a treat: the chaotic upheaval and influx of American GIs during world war two was brought to life.
All the theatrical accouterments were used to great effect and in service of the story. However, the frenetic effects of Kneehigh productions have tended, in my opinion, to jar with romantic or serious plays. Their 2015 adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s romantic thriller Rebecca was a feast for the senses, but it left me a little cold.
As a fan of the book, I felt that Du Maurier’s Gothic sensibilities were flattened by the silliness and high-camp of the Charleston music and the dancing during the intervals. The shanty singing built up an eerie tension as the boat containing Rebecca’s dead body was raised from the sea, and was in service to the play, yet these moments became more frequent as the play progressed and ultimately dimmed the climatic reveal at the end. And how could comedic musicality work in an adaptation of such an emotionally sincere script as Brief Encounter?
I have been an admirer of David Lean’s cinematic masterpiece Brief Encounter (and Noël Coward’s screenplay for it) since I watched it as a child. What immediately comes to my mind for me, and probably for many people, is the image of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as protagonists Laura and Alec looking deeply into one another’s eyes before they depart at a train station, seemingly never to be reunited. They find each other and wish for their love to continue, but outside commitments interfere. Although they do not remain together, they forever have the experience of their romance.
So, with all this in my mind, I was a little nervous. However, it is reassuring that, as you enter the theatre, director Emma Rice has referenced the original film: the space has been re-imagined as a cinema auditorium, with a screen on stage playing clips that meld with the performance, the actors slipping in and out, sometimes watching from seats at the front. Ushers show us to our seats, adding a special nostalgic touch.
Not everything seems to fit though: a glitzy curtain is drawn across the stage with a pink gel cast onto it making it seem bawdy and cabaret-like, which seemed slightly out of place for a ‘30s cinema. On stage, musicians and singers (all members of the cast) perform witty ditties from Coward’s 1930s back catalogue whilst ushers mingle with the audience. The songs work well with the cinematic stage, balancing the serendipity of love with the reality of life.
The trope of the cinema screen is a fantastic way to situate the story of Laura (Isobel Pollen), a bored housewife. Whilst she sits with Alec (Jim Sturgeon) on the front row with the audience, her husband Fred (Dean Nolan) is on the screen asking for her to return. Laura pulls away from Alec and walks onto the stage and into the screen. This is an effective way to prefigure her encounter with Alec at the train station and foreshadows the end of the play, perfectly pitching the balance between the stylistic elements of the piece with the poignancy of her return.
This filmic technique is used less as the performance gets going; from here on, Kneehigh’s version takes the intimate world of Laura and Alec and blows it wide open to include an ensemble cast of couples, station staff and Laura’s family and friends. Their first meeting, when Alec removes some grit from Laura’s eye, is a tender moment which, for me, was slightly marred by movement from the ensemble cast behind them.
The station scenes provide comedy, whilst courting couples contrast with the intimacy of the protagonist’s stiff emotion. Beverley Russ as Beryl stands out as the naïve café waitress who is being courted by Jos Slovick’s Stanley. These characters were superbly acted, but at times they distracted from the story of Laura and Alec; each couple had a story to tell, but this resulted in them competing for attention with (and detracting from the nuanced dialog and intimacy between) the leads.
For instance, the buns that Beryl and her boss Myrtle (Lucy Thackeray) bake are used in a Carry On routine wherein Beryl teases Stanley by placing a bun on each of her breasts. At their best, though, the flamboyant station staff and travelers, through their cavorting and dancing, provide a fluid physicality that juxtaposes with Laura and Alec’s reserved body-language. It is what they both cannot say and do that makes the most powerful statements.
The scene that really hits the mark is the boat scene in which the main, couple during a romantic boat ride, fall overboard. The quiet moment sees them merely undressing their wet clothes and announce to each other their love. The ensemble cast add to the atmosphere with gently singing an almost lullaby effect. However, as the scene changes the glamourous curtain comes down and Slovick sings in a cabaret rock style, Coward’s ‘I’m Mad About the Boy’. This completely contrasts with the naturalness and beauty of the early moment and is too fast paced. When Rice gets it right Brief Encounter is fantastic but all too often she intersperses fast physical dance routines that, for me, jar with the tone of the romance.
Projection is used throughout to submerge us within the period; black and white images of trains, menus, ticket stubs, timetables, and so on, all flash past. Most effectively, in one scene, a calendar and pressure gauge from a train are used to symbolise Laura’s desperation to see Alec and the pressure that their affair creates. A further theme throughout Kneehigh‘s Brief Encounter is Laura’s childhood desire to swim in the Devon sea, with the projection often showing choppy coastal waves. The natural freedom with which the waves crash and roll against each other symbolises Laura’s desire to let go and fully embrace Alec. After she kisses him, Laura’s body contorts and bends to the shape of the sea, her eyes closed as if the power of his kiss has transported her back to her natural raw state.
The ending is particularly moving too, as Laura and Alec finally say goodbye only for Laura’s annoying friend Hermione (Rudd) to interfere. Laura, in a fit of desperation, runs off to a bridge where she contemplates throwing herself onto the train tracks until a train races past on a cloth projection and she collapses in a heap. The thunderous classical music played at the end, by Laura, perfectly matches her heartbreak and suggests that forever she will play music to remember Alec.
The world that is created is rather fantastical, yet the period detail does occasional err on the side of parody. For instance, a model train is used with a smoke machine to create the effect of a passing steam locomotive, which is effective yet comical. The raucous comedy and dance is highly entertaining, but it fails to capture the flawed middle-class sensibilities of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
If you love the style of previous Kneehigh productions, then you will love their adaptation of Brief Encounter, and overall it is a wondrous love story. But as an adaptation of the cinematic classic, for me, it falls a little too far from the mark.
Brief Encounter runs at the Birmingham REP until Saturday 17th February. For direct show information – including all performance times, venue details and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/brief-encounter
For more from Kneehigh Theatre, visit www.kneehigh.co.uk
For more from the Birmingham REP, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk