Adapted by Emma Rice
Theatre By The Lake, Bolton Octagon, Stephen Joseph Theatre
Theatre By The Lake, Keswick
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When theatre-maker Emma Rice added 10 of Noël Coward’s songs to the script he had written for the classic 1945 movie romance, she magically transformed it into an operatic homage, complete with some startling digital projection tricks of its own.
As an end-stage production, it became a cinematic widescreen performance, with a quite breathtaking moment of theatre when the Dover boat train appeared to hurtle through the auditorium.
Now, in this joint production between venues in Keswick, Bolton and Scarborough, designed for their in-the-round stages, it becomes a more scaled-back, three-dimensional account, lacking digital trickery perhaps, but losing nothing of the authentic power of the original story of unrequited passion.
Indeed, it comes up with one or two of its own stage effects and some effective moments of slow-motion movement.
When a doctor in a railway waiting room encounters a stranger needing a speck of grit removing from her eye, it begins a middle-class, middle-age affair doomed by social conventions. Coward’s cabaret-style songs, stylishly threaded into the story, underscore the star-crossed lovers' plight, besides occasionally shifting the spotlight onto the railway romances going on elsewhere around the setting.
As the central characters, Pete Ashmore and Anne-Marie Piazza are note-perfect, their clipped delivery avoiding pastiche. They achieve a heart-rending chemistry when the rest of the cast serenade them to the strains of "Go Slow Johnny" at the close of the first act.
All seven performers are multi-instrumentalists and augment the piano and double bass of Alex Weatherhill and Maximillian Douglas Lamprecht. Musical matters of the heart come to a head in a show-stopping ‘brass duel’ between Robert Jackson and Natasha Lewis as the stationmaster and buffet manageress.
Elsewhere, Coward’s furtively homo-erotic lyrics of "Mad About The Boy" are turned neatly on their head, while "Room With a View" becomes a slow-burning lament of lost love. The final curtain play-out of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto is a moving contrivance... unless that’s just grit in your eye?
Brief Encounter will always be a steam-driven story from another age, but one with an enduring influence.
It runs here until October 8, then from October 20 to November 5 in Bolton.
Reviewer: David Upton