BritishTheatre

Published on

March 17, 2018

REVIEW: Brief Encounter, Empire Cinema Haymarket ✭✭✭✭

By

julianeaves

Brief Encounter Kneehigh Theatre

The cast of Brief Encounter. Photo: Steve Tanner Brief Encounter

Empire Cinema, Haymarket

11th March 2018

4 Stars

Book Tickets

Rebirth and renewal are powerful themes in art.  Noel Coward certainly stumbled upon a goldmine full of them when he came up with the central domestic situation in his 'Still Life', one of the nine plays that make up the mixed entertainment cycle that is 'Tonight at 8.30', in 1936.  The inspired decision to expand it into a fully fledged feature film, created in the tired latter years of the Second World War, nostalgically looking back onto a Pre-War World that fewer and fewer people still believed in (Coward was one who did), to a time where there was no blackout and a choice of chocolate was in plentiful supply, and - crucially - everybody knew their place and kept to it, turned out to be one of the masterstrokes of the master's brilliant career.  Having David Lean on hand to direct was even more of a piece of good luck, and also the ubiquitous Muir Mathieson to oversee the creation of the soundtrack famously throbbing with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.2., all this seems to have ensured the immortality of the film, enabling it to survive endless changes of fashion and retain its hold on the public's affections.

Kneehigh Theatre's Brief Encounter at Empire Cinema

Isabel Pollen as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as Alec in Brief Encounter. Photo: Steve Tanner Then, ten years ago, Emma Rice laboured with the Kneehigh Theatre Co. to turn it into a fascinating stage presentation: a kind of hommage to cinema, and old-fashioned Britishness, and performance art.  It's been touring here and there around the land and across the globe for a good while since, and now it's back in London for another go at the West End crowds.  A crack team of ten actor-musicians populates the improvised 'stage' set up on the real stage of the film house (design is by Neil Murray, lit by Malcolm Rippeth), against which clips from re-realisations of the movie are paraded (projections by John Driscoll and Gemma Carrington) to adorn and intersperse Rice's adaptation.  A fair number of Coward tunes make it into the re-mix, all in wonderfully inventive and nimble arrangements that at once remind us of the tastes of the past and yet, rather like 'Girl From The North Country', wrench the past into the here and now, giving an entirely fresh and arresting sound to this voice from yesteryear.  Recently, a certain famous American songwriter occasioned much kerfuffle in local critical circles when he had the temerity to question the musical theatre merits of Sir Noel.  Well, perhaps he might think differently could he hear what is to be heard in this work, especially in the poems (Coward wrote - and did - absolutely everything, including write poetry) given exquisitely modern and thrilling settings by composer and MD, Stu Barker, who conducts the company with superb finesse.

Noel Coward's Brief Encounter

Isabel Pollen as Laura in Brief Encounter. Photo: Steve Tanner

And he and Rice draw from them performances with such grace and heart and imagination.  Of the whole beautiful cast, star of the hour is surely the terrific Jos Slovick, whose voice and manner blend everything from George Formby to Joe Brown on the musical front, and who co-opts the zaniness of The Crazy Gang, Tommy Trinder and Arthur Askey, amongst others, in what is by far the most grateful male role in the show.  Opposite him - in every way - is the terrifying doyenne of the station cafe, Lucy Thackeray's unforgettably matronly Myrtle Bagot, cast very much in the faux-gentile mask of a Dora Bryan or Thora Hird at their most vampish.  It is really the energy - the competition, the struggle, the watchfulness - between these two that drives the whole shebang.

Noel Coward's Brief Encounter at Empire Cinema

Lucy Thackeray as Myrtle in Brief Encounter. Photo: Steve Tanner

As for the great romantic lovers, Mrs Laura Jesson and the equally married and potentially adulterous Dr Alec Harvey, Isabel Pollen plays her with the icy middle-class poise of a Charlotte Rampling reining in the sex appeal and encasing it in all the respectability that life in the shires has to offer, while Jim Sturgeon does the not so good doctor with rather less darkness than the part perhaps calls for: when we hear he's headed off for South Africa, we're really rather relieved, and hope he'll let his hair down there a bit and stop being such a stuffed shirt.  Had it not been for the massive personal charm and charisma of Trevor Howard in that role in the movie, would it ever have got anywhere?  Opposite him, Celia Johnson deservedly stirred up again the 'Round The Horne' parody figure of 'Dame Celia Molestrangler' with yet another of her legendary incarnations of elegantly poised, impeccably turned out paragons of English womanhood, who never so much as broke into a sweat, much less expressed any much more powerful, carnal sensations.  (Heavens, no!)  The comedy here is that this is 'attempted' infidelity from a couple who probably don't have the balls to go through with it.  That's funny, but in a bittersweet kind of way: perfect Coward material.  Not for nothing are 'Mad About The Boy' and any number of late songs from 'Sail Away' shoe-horned in here: they are the urbane, witty, sophisticated voice that is constantly denied to the breast-beating pair of dowdy provincial pigeons whose non-starter of a would-be illicit amour we watch never quite getting airborne for 90 long minutes.

Noel Coward's Brief Encounter Kneehigh Theatre

Katrina Kleve, Lucy Thackeray and Beverly Rudd in Brief Encounter. Photo: Steve Tanner

Their agonies are, of course, given operatic power by the presence of Rach 2.  Rice cleverly gets the chorus to take on the essential 'part' of the orchestra, and they turn on a nice bit of Rachmaninovian vocalese whenever the emotional temperature needs pumping up: as a technique, it works jolly well, happily recalling the British passion for singing in choirs, of 'joining-in', fitting in, conforming.  The chorus is a splendid presence in this show.  But it is not so much for their 'overt' expression than the ineffable, hidden messages that lurk in Sergei's thumping big tune that we are impressed by them: they sing a song that is the music of mental and creative recovery from artistic depression and paralysis, the very kind that followed the flop premiere of Rachmaninoff's radical Symphony No.1.  Having undergone that then most modish of upper-middle-class amusements, psychoanalysis, the composer re-launched himself with a warm-hearted and glittering (and not too difficult to play) piano concerto.  The rest, as they say, is Music for Pleasure history.  It's never been out of the repertoire since.  Success and fame and respectability achieved through jettisoning his true daring and originality.

Brief Encounter at Empire Theatre

Dean Nolan as Fred, Isabel Pollen as Laura in Brief Encounter. Photo: Steve Tanner

And that is what we can concentrate on when we become irritated by the awkward pussy-footing-around of the stricken, dithering leads.  It is that music that always reminds us of how consoling and reassuring life can be, if only we don't indulge our appetite for risk-taking and play things safely, by the rules.  And this, by Rice's implication, is as true for the leads as it is for the rest of her company: for Beverley Rudd's downtrodden Beryl (a name that Thackeray pronounces with three gorgeous syllables, in another of her masterly comic touches) in the cafe, and also in the other characters she plays, Hermione and Dolly Messiter; it is so for Dean Nolan's vacuous Fred Jesson, and his exuberant Albert Godby and calculating, sneaky Stephen Lynn; and for Katrina Kleve's, and Peter Dukes', and Seamus Carey's and Pat Moran's dreams and ambitions as the deftly deployed ensemble, filling out the remaining smaller roles and giving depth and substance to the picture of 1930's Britain on display here.  It is the universality of this story for Everyman that makes us care about it.  It is the commonness of the compromises and sacrifices that makes them important.

Kneeight Theatre's Brief Encounter

Lucy Thackeray as Myrtle, Isabel Pollen as Laura, Jim Sturgeon as Alec in Brief Encounter. Photo: Steve Tanner

Quite what Coward himself might have made of this strangely wonderful re-imagining of his story of fraught middle-class emotions, who can say?  And who knows what he would have thought of Rice turning his leading lady into Ann Todd in 'The Seventh Veil', as she morphs into the grand concert pianist at the heart of the stirring music to which some of Deborah Kerr's crashing waves lend their frothy accompaniment.  I'm not sure that I was at all convinced by that.  But, who cares?  It's a lovely, Mills and Boon'ish fantasy.  It will certainly please the punters as it settles in for another long run, taking us through to December this year.  Quite charming.

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The British Theatre website has been established to celebrate the rich and diverse theatrical culture of the United Kingdom.  Our ethos revolves around encouraging and nurturing the performing arts in all its forms. The spirit of theatre is very much alive and the British Theatre website is at the forefront of delivering news and information to audiences and enthusiasts everywhere. Our team of theatre journalists and reviewers are working hard to cover productions and news.


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ABOUT BRITISHTHEATRE

BritishTheatre.com
Opening Night Media Ltd
3rd Floor, 80 St. Martin’s Lane
Covent Garden
London WC2N 4AA

The British Theatre website has been established to celebrate the rich and diverse theatrical culture of the United Kingdom.  Our ethos revolves around encouraging and nurturing the performing arts in all its forms. The spirit of theatre is very much alive and the British Theatre website is at the forefront of delivering news and information to audiences and enthusiasts everywhere. Our team of theatre journalists and reviewers are working hard to cover productions and news.


We are constantly developing the site and are always open to receiving feedback from our readers. Join our mailing list to be kept informed of all the latest news that is of interest to you..