Adapted from the Noël Coward/David Lean film by Andrew Taylor
Middle Ground Theatre Company: Gala Theatre, Durham, and touring
From play - Still Life, part of Tonight at 8.30 - to film and back to play - an interesting progression. And, given that the film is considered to be one of the great classics of British cinema, one which will be in the Top Ten for many, the first question that comes into one's mind is, Does it work?
Yes and no. To a large extent it does retain the atmosphere of the original, due in no small measure to the performances and the very effective composite set, designed by Ali Gorton, and Stephen Holroyd's lighting. On the other hand, it follows the structure of the film very closely - starting with the ending, and then telling the story through flashbacks. It's a very effective cinematic device - and very new at the time the film was made - but it is much more difficult to make it work on stage. The picnic scene, for example, and Stephen's flat, required trucks to be pushed onto the stage and, in the latter case, a chaise longue to be lifted down and positioned, and, although the stage crew worked quickly and efficiently, it did slow the pace. And I'm not sure that Laura's final words, spoken in voice-over, were really as effective in this setting.
A play like this has to be treated as a period piece: in many ways, the late 1930s are more foreign to us than Tudor times, if only because so much is familiar and yet, beneath the surface, completely different. Middle Ground did so: the heavy blanket of respectability and repressed feelings, the laconic speech (many echoes of Coward in Richard Walsh's Alec), the comic-book working class characters, all combined to give the production exactly the right "feel".
Karen Drury (Laura) and Richard Walsh (probably best known as Sicknote in London's Burning but with a very respectable stage career before and after that) created exactly the right atmosphere, with strong support from the rest of the cast.
Middle Ground make a speciality of what one can describe as middle-of-the-road productions - one of their most recent was The Railway Children - touring them throughout the country, and Brief Encounter is typical product for them. The production values are high and the performances excellent, but it was hard not to feel a slight sense of disappointment that a classic film has not translated into a classic play, a disappointment akin to that of seeing a much loved novel not quite making it as a film.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan