Adapted by Emma Rice from the words and music of Noël Coward
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
Leaving the Metro station after the performance, two ladies of around my age asked me what I thought about the production. I told them (briefly: for more detail, read on!) and asked what they thought. A bit hesitantly they said, "Well, it wasn't quite what we were expecting."
That, I think, sums up the always inventive Kneehigh: they never produce quite what you're expecting.
In 2003 I saw a production of Brief Encounter by Middle Ground Theatre Company and of it I wrote, "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."
What Emma Rice has chosen to do is share the focus: the doomed affair between Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Milo Twomey) shares the stage with the two other affairs, between the older Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin) and Albert (Joseph Alessi) and the younger Beryl (Beverly Rudd) and Stanley (Christopher Price). These are given more prominence - usually they are peripheral - and, indeed, share the space as well as the focus, for everything takes place on the same composite set and often the Laura/Alec scenes are underscored by music provided by the rest of the cast.
Music, of course, is a mainstay of Kneehigh productions and here Rice uses Coward's songs, chosen for their appropriateness to what is happening onstage. I particularly loved Beryl's Mad About the Boy, so funny and touching and yet so appropriate. And of course it would have been unforgivable not to use the Rachmaninov!
An excellent flexible set by Neil Murray is complemented by some very impressive projections (John Driscoll and Gemma Carrington) which add both realism (as Laura stands on the footbridge over the tracks, a train rushes by below), impact (Laura plays the piano concerto on the piano and is simultaneously seen on film), and wry humour (crashing waves signal moments of high passion). There's also very effective puppetry.
But most important of all, of course, are the performances about which there can be no criticism. There are a few directorial decisions which I might quarrel with - Beryl's use of a scooter seems just a tad silly, to be honest - but overall Rice's production captures the essence of the Lean film whilst putting her own at times quirky stamp on it all and by opening out the focus to encompass the other two couples, she gives us a new perspective on what can so easily become something of a museum piece, no matter how well-loved.
It certainly isn't what you would expect if you're not acquainted with Kneehigh's work, and if you are - well, you know to expect the unexpected!
Cecily Boys reviewed this production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, John Johnson in Northampton, Steve Orme in Birmingham and Philip Fisher at the Cinema, Haymarket
Reviewer: Peter Lathan