After recently experiencing the wonder that is The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (Kneehigh’s latest show; now on tour), I was very excited to see the revival of the company’s 2008 hit, Brief Encounter – the two shows, which are both directed by Emma Rice and deal with a love affair using similar theatrical devices, naturally invite comparison. This theatrical adaptation of Noël Coward’s 1936 play and David Lean’s 1945 film, which incorporates many of Coward’s classic songs, tells the story of the affair between housewife Laura and GP Alec in a wonderful spectacle somewhere between theatre, musical theatre and film.
Anyone familiar with Kneehigh’s work will know their knack for fusing music and dance, theatricality and physicality, stagecraft and whimsicality into elaborately staged experiences. On this front, Brief Encounter is typical Kneehigh fare. The set consists of a scaffolding-like construction of the bridge above two railway platforms, under which the station tea bar and sometimes Laura’s living room are housed, and, by extension, the grand space of the Empire, all in gold and purple, as well as the space onstage in front of a bright pink velvet curtain. However, what really creates the different scenes is the performers’ wonderful physicality. The passing of a train, for example, is represented by the everyone onstage suddenly ‘blowing’ themselves dramatically to one side – it’s funny and clear. True, a lot of the choreography doesn’t have the depth or precision that it did in Flying Lovers, but that’s understandable - there were only four people onstage in that production. But Brief Encounter could have, for lack of a better term, gone for it more with the stagecraft; the flight sequence, though lovely, is far too short and comes out of nowhere – it seems slightly underdone.
However, the performances, which thrive on wonderful juxtapositions of theatricality and naturalism, hilarity and melancholy, are anything but underdone. Jim Sturgeon as Alec, with his delightfully thick Transatlantic voice that wavers seemingly randomly through accents from Deep South to Scottish, is charmingly old-world. His singing, when we get to hear it towards the end, is touching and pure. Isabel Pollen is a restrained and lovely Laura – the deep emotions underlying her rather plain exterior are effectively embodied by images of deep, swirling ocean waters on the screen behind the stage. Sturgeon and Pollen make a beautiful pair, the sincere love between them forming the melancholy core of an otherwise highly amusing show. There is some amazing character acting on display from Lucy Thackeray, Dean Nolan and Beverly Rudd, who take on a number of roles but most frequently appear, respectively, as delightfully affected tea bar owner Myrtle, boisterously earthy ticket inspector Albert and sturdily ruddy shop-girl Beryl. However, Jos Slovik steals the show as Beryl’s swain Stanley. With his bright, clear voice, he does most of the singing and effortlessly plays several instruments, underscoring both the bittersweet central love story between Alec and Laura as well as the less noble but rather happier trysts between Beryl and Stanley and Myrtle and Albert. They are joined onstage a couple of musicians who serenade the audience even as they arrive and later take on various small roles with amazing versatility.
The show displays a huge breath of emotions through its excellent performances and incredible design. Just when you think you know what’s coming next, the mind-boggling inventiveness of the production trips you up and touches you or makes you laugh in unexpected ways. Making use of everything from puppetry to collage, this play brims with colour, music and life, making it a thrilling experience for both younger audiences unfamiliar with the story and old Coward hands, who are sure to fall in love all over again.
playing at Empire Cinemas, Haymarket until 2nd September 2018