Noél Coward, adapted by Emma Rice
West Yorkshire Playhouse
Kneehigh seems to be like Marmite - you either love them or you hate them. Their reputation for high jinks puts them as one of the most notable companies touring in Britain today and they certainly put their irrepressible spirit into Brief Encounter.
Laura (Naomi Fredrick) and Alec (Tristan Sturrock) meet in a railway station and so begins a clandestine affair on a Thursday afternoon away from their respective spouses. Behind them and supporting them are a cast of station tea room staff and railway workers who are embroiled in their own romances, into which they literally bounce, sing and wiggle. Kneehigh's exuberant style includes red tricycles, trampolines, ukuleles, 1930's soap powder adverts and many and varying train rides. The music hardly stops and the individual songs are a joy to watch from Myrtle's (Tamzin Griffin) sultry double bass playing to Alec's heart felt, lonely solo.
Brief Encounter is most famous in the form of David Lean's 1945 film, but far less well know as Noël Coward's short play Still Life from which it is originally adapted. Director Emma Rice incorporates his play writing, songs and poetry, easily winning you over to the wider range of Coward's work. Rice also blends her media, switching between theatre, cinema, television, musical to music hall, puppetry and even circus in Alec and Laura's suspended 'high wire' act. This is a director who shows you that with imagination and fearlessness you can do anything in the theatre.
Admittedly for the purists, Kneehigh will be an explosive pill to swallow but there is nothing but a fully alive performance in every minute of their productions and that life certainly translates through to their audiences. This is one of Kneehigh's most audience responsive shows right down to the affectionate groan that inadvertently escapes our lips when Alec asks if he can help: 'I'm a doctor'.
Stunning visual affects such as the stage wide steam train that rushes under the bridge as Laura contemplates jumping are just one of the visual delights of Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll's projection designs. No less the evocative, nostalgic, charming and witty set of designer Neil Murray.
Stuart McLoughlin's (Stanley) singing is utterly entrancing and Amanda Lawrence (Beryl) shines again with comedy, extravagance, balloon-animal making skills (yes really), timing and pathos even in throwing down her tricycle. Andy Williams superbly plays a range of characters, including a short but excellent scene as Alec's flat owning friend.
By contrasting the freedom of the working class characters to the restraint and inhibitions of Alec and Laura, Coward seems to poke fun at the cage that British manners created for themselves and Kneehigh certainly parody this well here. The clipped vowels illustrate the 1930s setting and Myrtle's affected accent mocks this with her upper class intentions. However, whilst this is more an observation than a criticism, there is something inherently funny about listening to such cut glass accents. This leaves you inevitably removed from the poignancy of Laura and Alec's situation, and Kneehigh's sense of fun throughout means you never quite take them seriously. Both actors perform brilliantly but you can't help thinking that some how Sturrock enjoys his cameo as the Scottish soldier with glee.
Fans of the film and all those who fall into the category of 'incurably romantic' will have a feast but for anyone wanting a little more bite to their evening's theatre will leave with more light than shade. This production is certainly 'incurably Kneehigh' and long may their work stay that way.
Reviewer: Cecily Boys