Brief Encounter

Noël Coward, adapted for the stage by Emma Rice
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

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Hannah Azuonye (Laura) & Baker Mukasa (Alec) Credit: Johan Persson
Baker Mukasa (Alec) & Hannah Azuonye (Laura) Credit: Johan Persson
Baker Mukasa (Alec) & Hannah Azuonye (Laura) Credit: Johan Persson
Richard Glaves (Fred) & Christina Modestou (Myrtle) Credit: Johan Persson
Full cast and band Credit: Johan Persson
Brief Encounter Credit: Johan Persson

Soon after the Royal Exchange's announcement that it will continue without an artistic director, its only past solo artistic director, Sarah Frankcom, has returned to direct the theatre's alternative festive show, as she did last year with Betty! A sort of Musical.

Emma Rice's popular adaptation of the 1945 David Lean-directed film, in turn based on a short play by Noël Coward from 1936 titled Still Life, incorporates various cabaret songs from 'The Master' including "No Good At Love" / "So Good At Love", "Mad About the Boy" and "A Room with a View" and brings out the budding relationships of the more peripheral characters as parallel stories.

So alongside the big romance of middle-class housewife Laura (a lovely, dignified performance from Hannah Azuonye) and general practitioner Alec (Baker Mukasa)—both married to other people with children—railway station guard Albert (Richard Glaves) is trying to overcome the pretended reluctance of café manageress Myrtle (Christina Modestou) to come out with him, while her not very efficient waitress Beryl (Ida Regan) is chatted up by snack seller Stanley, here played by Georgia Frost as shy and lovestruck rather than the 'cheeky chappy' he usually is, and that some of the lines imply. Matthew Allen shows his versatility in a few roles from Laura's young son to one of the intimidating RAF men, plus he plays a mean sax.

This is all played out on Rose Revitt's striking set that combines Victorian station ironwork and clock with dark wooden fittings and perhaps a touch of art deco in the rotating inlaid floor with its swirling pattern of railway tracks. For the scene in the rowing boat, this explodes into blossom coming out of the central clock and held by the others in the cast, lit beautifully by Simeon Miller. The four-piece jazz band (Malone plus Alice Phelps on double bass, Jenny Walinetski on drums and Sam Quinn on guitar) is behind the café counter but fully visible, except the percussionist who is encased in wood and reflective glass behind them.

The music, from orchestrator, musical director and on-stage pianist Matthew Malone, is very interesting with its accessible jazz arrangements of Coward's songs going into incidental music that at times is quite minimalist and avant-garde. Sound designer Russell Ditchfield has created a great effect that sounds as though the windows in the theatre are rattling whenever a train goes by, which I loved.

This is the third production of this show I've seen in a little over a year, and I think it is by far the longest; the running time of 2 hours 20 on the web site is more than half an hour longer than that given for the Pitlochry Festival Theatre production in its summer season. That isn't necessarily a problem, but it does feel rather slow and halting overall, the joyful exuberance one expects from an Emma Rice production replaced by thoughtful contemplation with a great many long pauses. Even some of the more comic songs feel a little restrained and serious.

But there are some laughs and some impressively strong singing voices in a show that certainly looks and sounds great and fits in with the Exchange's tradition of alternative adult theatrical fare for the Christmas period—although it's a shame it no longer offers something for children as well in its Studio as it used to.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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