Brief Encounter

Adapted by Emma Rice from the words and music of Noël Coward
Kneehigh Theatre
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, and touring

Production photo

Please note: the publication of this review was delayed because of technical problems.

The film Brief Encounter has achieved iconic status since it was released in 1945, a status attested to by the full house at the theatre in Cheltenham where it is currently playing. The film, which was an adaptation of a Noël Coward play first seen in 1936, is now in turn adapted by the acclaimed Cornish company Kneehigh which artfully mixes both film footage and theatre.

The adaptation by company director Emma Rice can best be described as both a loving celebration of the film and an affectionate parody. Fans of the troupe's work will need no persuasion to fork out for this production and there is indeed much to entertain in what is a very intelligent, skilful piece of work.

The show, which runs for around two hours is studded with popular period songs, ('Mad About the Boy', 'Beautiful Doll') which are enthusiastically performed by the cast - they even perform an a capella version of the theme from Rachmaninov's piano concerto which features so famously in the film.

The company can't be faulted for effort - it's clearly a labour of love - and the mixture of nostalgia - a sizeable proportion of the audience would have seen the film first time around - knockabout fun; puppetry and ingenuity, carried all before it. The way the production switched between the stage and footage of the actors drew particular delight, as when Laura walks through film of a stationary train projected on to a backdrop and then appears on the screen.

It seems churlish then to cavil but I do share some of the reservations of the Guardian theatre critic, Michael Billington, who remarked of Kneehigh's 2006 Cymbeline, that watching a production of theirs was like being, "surrounded by worshipping adherents for whom the company can do no wrong".

As with Kneehigh's Bacchae, I feel that a desire to both send up the material and to achieve genuine tragedy, in that case, poignancy here, means they fail to achieve either tragedy or poignancy. Of course it is perfectly possible to move from tragedy to comedy - Shakespeare turns on a sixpence - or even to have both momentarily, but it requires better discretion than exhibited here.

Of all the company only Joseph Alessi as Albert, Laura's husband, and Fred, the station master, both excellent, the latter with more than a touch of Sid James about him, manages to achieve 'the right' tone. Beverley Rudd as Beryl and Annette McLaughlin as Myrtle are both fine in the comic business, but the performances for me are too arch, too knowing. Milo Twombey is a little bit under-powered as Alec but Hannah Yelland is bang on the money as Laura.

But I should stress; mine is very much a minority view and as a piece of entertainment, the production offers enormous fun.

"Brief Encounter" will be pulling into Sheffield's Lyceum; the Truro Hall for Cornwall; Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne and Oxford Playhouse.

Cecily Boys reviewed this production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, John Johnson in Northampton, Steve Orme in Birmingham, Peter Lathan in Newcastle and Philip Fisher at the Cinema, Haymarket

Reviewer: Pete Wood