Noël Coward's Brief Encounter

Adapted for the stage by Emma Rice
Kneehigh Theatre
Cinema Haymarket
(2008)

Production photo

When Cornish company, Kneehigh adapted A Matter of Life and Death at the National Theatre, you would have thought that they had conspired to kill a member of the Royal family, such was the fuss.

Like Powell and Pressburger's classic film, Brief Encounter is a British institution with which one toys at great risk of offending the multitudes who would not want a single word altered.

Emma Rice, who has adapted the script, clearly has great affection for it. She has tirelessly deconstructed it then put it back together again, with added Kneehigh touches. They have also added in nine Coward songs, five of which, rather than using the original music, have been orchestrated by the company's resident musician, Stu Barker.

The setting for the red carpet, Sunday afternoon press performance could hardly have been more appropriate. The Art Deco Cinema on Haymarket looks like a throwback from the 1930s and must surely have played host to the original film on numerous occasions.

This multimedia presentation is big on music but also uses film sequences, although none from the version starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson.

In view of the impressive imitations given by Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock as Laura and Alec, together with the excellent Tamzin Griffin in the Joyce Carey role as Myrtle, these were deemed unnecessary.

Where Kneehigh really score is in creating the ambience and atmosphere of the period. With usherettes in the uniforms of the day and a band playing jazz, everything feels right before the lights even go down.

We are then treated to a mixture of images, starting with a film into which Laura Jesson, a happily married mother of two, literally walks to take her place on celluloid.

For the most part, the action is played out on the stage, which is primarily set by designer Neil Murray to recreate the station refreshment room that featured so largely in the film. There, Laura meets dishy Dr Alec Harvey and instantly falls head over heels in love.

While this is taking place, two other affairs are also on the boil. Mature Myrtle might give porter Albert the run-around, but deep down she really loves him and her admiration knows no bounds when he chases off two lairy soldiers.

This couple is mirrored by Myrtle's assistant, Amanda Lawrence's Beryl, and her ukulele-playing, cake-toting admirer Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin).

The actors race up and down the large stage space and on a rather dangerous looking walkway between station platforms with tremendous energy. They also periodically appear in the auditorium, which brings spectators closer to the action and makes them feel part of it.

In addition to recreating the plot and most of the script of the movie, the company presents a kind of music hall show that interweaves between scenes. Perhaps the star is Miss Lawrence who sings and dances energetically and charms the audience with an obscene balloon act. She also has great fun with a bad-tempered Pekinese dog.

True love is eventually found and lost as the leading couple reach a fizzing, airborne climax that is the show's highlight and are then brought firmly back to earth by embarrassing discovery, which sends the doctor to Africa and his love to the arms of her husband, played, like Albert, by Andy Williams.

The question that must always be asked in connection with a production of this type is whether it adds anything to the much-loved film that has drawn most of the audience members in the first place.

The Kneehigh Brief Encounter is certainly no replacement for the iconic love story that has been so popular for over sixty years.

However, as an impressive visual and aural entertainment in its own right, paying due homage to the film, it should prove popular in cinemas up and down the country.

It is also something else - not only a faithful representation of an era but simultaneously a rather subversive send-up of the British class system, exemplified by some interval adverts that look genuine but get laughs when viewed two generations on.

For an alternative view of the underlying story, readers might also wish to check out the DVD of Tonight at 8.30's Still Life, on which the film was based.

This production was also reviewed by Steve Orme in Birmingham and Cecily Boys in Leeds.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher