Above The Stag, Vauxhall
Above the Stag, underneath the Vauxhall railway arches, is well known for its carefully programmed gay-themed repertory, but as important to its gathering reputation and success is the fact that Peter Bull and his team produce all the shows in house. This ensures consistent production values, which prioritise a blend of striking new writing, strategic revivals of shows that are unduly neglected, and frothy fun musicals or panto. Constraints of space, budget and rehearsal time are regularly turned into creative opportunities that provide a continuously rewarding, thought-provoking, funny yet intimate experience for the audience.
All these qualities are very much on display in the superb new show, Encounter, which takes Noel Coward and David Lean’s post-war film Brief Encounter as its inspiration, and showcases a fine script and some outstanding acting performances.
The argument is often made that the plays of Coward, Rattigan and Tennessee Williams offer case-studies of displaced sexuality, in which the playwright submerges his own homosexuality in the experiences of heterosexual couples in order to explore encounters obliquely that could never have been staged directly at that time. While there is something to be said for this interpretation (especially in the case of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea) it is usually a lot more complicated than that.
Certainly, in this case Coward’s characters were fully formed, first as vehicles for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, in the short play Still Life, and later in the roles made famous in the film by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. But that does not mean that flipping the characters into two gay men is in anyway alien to the aesthetic of the original, which is faithfully re-enacted here.
For the drama is as much an account of the impossible pressures ordinary people were under at the end of the war in 1947, as it is a simple thwarted love story. Rationing, enforced austerity, poor public health, huge inequalities of class and wealth and educational opportunity are all themes that ran through the original and return here in Phil Willmott’s subtle reworking. Victory seemed little better than defeat. Add to that the straightjacket of unhappy marriages from which new love offers a sudden hope of joyous escape and you have exactly the tantalising circumstances needed for presenting a transgressive yet redemptive gay relationship in a plausible contemporary framework.
It is very much the same world and set of issues that J.B.Priestley explores in An Inspector Calls, and the direction (also by Phil Willmott) evokes in some respects the style of Stephen Daldry’s famous production. If it was not what Coward wrote it was surely true to the texture of the life that was lived and experienced in more than few post-war stations, parks, and vestries … and now it can be evoked and documented…
Willmott marks the fact that this is a period tribute by placing a modern bracketing motif around the main-story, so that we see a contemporary gay couple reacting to the material preserved in a diary that has suddenly appeared abandoned on a kiosk. From there we are whisked back to Vauxhall Station in 1947 in clouds of steam, starkly expressionist lighting and a superbly evocative set which is leached into sepia tones that summon up the film. Designer David Shields (who is interviewed in the programme) has a great record in this theatre where the challenge is to make full use of the width of the stage area while giving an illusion of depth.
This set is one of his best – a lot is crammed into a small space – a vendor’s kiosk, the ironwork and frilly cookie-cutter architrave of a Victorian station, period notices, a Gothic waiting room that doubles as a church vestry, and a fireside of a family home in Surbiton. Yet the sightlines are clear, and the actors seem very much at ease within it. The audience has both real proximity and the illusion of distance from the action, and the period feel is spot-on. The same goes for the costumes too.
There are four players, two of whom double up roles. Adam Lilley plays Dr Lawrence Marsh, who is on secondment to a clinic in Vauxhall one day a week. Alexander Huetson is Arthur Hollis, the stationmaster, who first meets Dr Marsh as a patient. Penelope Day plays both Marsh’s wife, Sarah, and a paper vendor, Mavis Madden. The cast is completed by Chris Hines, who depicts both a policeman and the local vicar, and is listed as assistant director.
While there are some moments of melodrama here just as there are in the original, they are confined to the plotting rather than to the playing which is notable in its subtlety and restraint. What is not said or what is said in body language rather than words produces an eloquent demonstration that less is usually more, and certainly in the super-reserved and constrained British characters of this period. The two gay men in particular are coiled tight like springs under tension, and unless you feel that the play cannot work.
The relationship between Marsh and Hollis is very carefully developed. It references the film – a cinema matinée, a recurring music of melancholy and yearning – Schubert not Rachmaninoff this time, dislocating interruptions by others at key points – but stakes out its own trajectory in wholly plausible terms. Marsh is both the more eloquent and the more conflicted of the two, and the one who is far more the prisoner of conventional class and moral anxieties. This anguished contrast is very well portrayed by Lilley, veering between fear and blustery over-assertion, and unwilling to admit to the power of love and sexual attraction. Ultimately this is a study in self-absorption, and how under pressure that will lead to unintended cruelty and the sacrifice of self-realisation. Marsh has more to lose as society judges things, but in the process gives up the best chance he will ever have to be true to himself. Lilley gives us the undertow of regret and loss as well as the confident surface swagger.
Arthur Hollis is technically a demanding part to bring off because he is far less articulate than Marsh. Yet Huetson does a masterly and affecting job in making him the emotional barometer of the play, moving from sparky optimism through to wan stoicism. Partly through body language, and partly through detailed acting off the speech, Huetson finds an eloquence, tenderness and dignity for his character that is very moving. And when he does find his voice – in a monologue about the reality of prejudice and persecution, and in a powerful declaration of the transforming power of love – the results are truly compelling.
Penelope Day’s roles are an important part of the structural and emotional anchoring of the play. The stay-at-home spouse, as in the film, is a fairly thankless part, but it needs to be a pitch-perfect portrayal of no-nonsense, ordinary goodness to work, and that is hard to bring off. She needs to be a fine person in her own right to make the plot more poignant – Marsh should not have any good reason other than love to leave his wife. Mavis Madden is a more broad-brush creation, part Mrs Pike from Dad’s Army, and part Mrs Malaprop from The Rivals. She serves to lighten and lower the tone, while also offering discreet, knowing understanding for the love affair and a kind of chorus.
Similarly the policeman’s character is more of a comic stereotype than a major role, but Chris Hines’ portrayal showed well the contradictions and paradoxes between his personal life as a roving Lothario and his official role as moral guardian. The vicar on the other hand is a much more queasy and sinister creation: a demonstration of the malevolent power of gay self-hatred and sexual jealousy, varnished over with specious, oily, false empathy.
Evocations of famous films can tip over into parody or unintended comedy very easily but thanks to the skill of the writing and the carefully graded, fully inhabited acting, this production is a triumph on all fronts and deserves a very successful run. Encounter digs deep into the harm of class distinctions and exposes the effects of deprivation, whether sexual, emotional or social, in a touching, undogmatic drama which can reach out to anyone trapped in the gap between compromised reality and longed-for aspiration. There is also lot of humour, both broad and wry.
It is one of the two or three plays that have most impressed me this year. Not to be missed.