Noel Coward adapted by Emma Rice
Kneehigh Theatre and Birmingham Repertory Theatre
From 02 February 2018 to 17 February 2018
Review by Steve Orme
Ten years after Kneehigh’s version of Brief Encounter started its epic journey at Birmingham REP, Emma Rice’s production is back on track and beginning a new tour at the same venue.
There have been big changes at the REP in that time, with the theatre being transformed and now boasting a third space. Rice, of course, has experienced a major upheaval, her relatively short tenure as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe about to come to an end as she starts her own theatre company Wise Children.
Brief Encounter has also gone through changes from the production which earned four Olivier and two Tony award nominations. The result proves that Rice is still one of the most imaginative directors in British theatre today.
The major alteration is that Rice wrings out the maximum amount of humour. The previous incarnation had its fair share but here Rice has actors who are naturally funny and she gives them full rein to pursue as much comedy as possible.
This can be unsettling at times, most notably when central characters Laura and Alec get together in a station tea room for what turns out to be their penultimate rendezvous. The passion and tenderness is dissipated somewhat by the antics of waitress Beryl and her love interest Stanley whose comical upstairs embrace is detracting.
This time around, Rice places less emphasis on Laura and Alec’s love for each other which will undoubtedly end in tears, more on an ensemble affair with a feelgood factor. But this is still a clever, gimmicky production that gives you a first-class experience.
The production starts in the same way, actors greeting people on their arrival and musicians performing songs such as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby”.
Laura and Alec sit in front of the stage watching the film Brief Encounter. On-screen Laura’s husband is pleading with her, she walks through the screen and they continue the scene on film. Rice uses the same technique to great effect on a couple of other occasions.
As for the acting, there are strong performances from Jim Sturgeon as Alec, the doctor who falls totally in love after taking a piece of grit out of Laura’s eye, and Isabel Pollen as lovelorn romantic Laura who suffers because she cannot leave her husband and children. It is, after all, 1938.
Catching the eye in multiple roles is Kneehigh regular Beverly Rudd. She excels as Beryl, dashing around the station refreshment bar on a scooter; a more belligerent waitress; and a snobbish acquaintance of Laura with a comical dog.
The whole cast engage wholeheartedly with the production, although special mention must go to Dean Nolan, acrobatically throwing himself around the stage as the stationmaster, Lucy Thackeray as the imposing tea room manageress Myrtle and Jos Slovick, a measured Stanley whose voice gives every song a mellifluous lift.
Rice has given Brief Encounter a makeover yet it still has superb acting, delightful singing and inventive design by Neil Murray. Is it better than the previous version? Let’s just say it’s different. No doubt there will be queues of people jostling for seats and anxious to get on board when it pulls in to theatres around the country.