Somehow missed this one despite its long residency in London, finally rectified in advance of Don John.
As one Kneehigh production arrives in London (Don John, their latest show, which opens at BAC this week), another sets out on tour.
Following the mixed critical reception to Emma Rice’s adaptation of Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (a reception that indirectly sparked the whole 'dead white men' debate), the company, undaunted, turned their attentions to another cherished British film, to David Lean's Brief Encounter. Rather wonderfully their version was originally staged at the Cineworld Haymarket, a central London cinema, an apt loaction if ever there was one given that this is a stage production concerned very much with film. And though Rice’s take on this cinematic classic is full of familiar Kneehigh tropes, this time around they manage to chime with the material in a more sympathetic way than in Life and Death where the excess of things ended up overwhelming the story.
Brief Encounter started life on the stage, being based on a short play by Noel Coward, Still Life, one of nine that went under the banner of Tonight at 8.30, and Coward’s voice runs through this theatrical reclaiming – literally, as his songs are peppered throughout the production. At various points the characters pause to sing snippets of No Good at Love, Room with a View and Mad about the Boy, in arrangements by regular Kneehigh collaborator Stu Barker whose distinctive contributions weren't as jarring as they have been in the past.
But though the story of Laura and Alec’s short-lived liaison began life on stage, what Kneehigh are presenting here is a stage version of the film. Rice’s Brief Encounter is both celebratory and gently teasing in its approach. It is full of allusions to cinema: black and white images of waves and wind are projected on the back wall, as are close ups of Laura’s tormented face as she plays Rachmaninoff on the piano. On a couple of magical occasions the characters actually appear to plunge into the cinema screen, becoming one with the filmed footage.
Anyone familiar with Kneehigh’s work will recognise many of the devices Rice employs: miniature steam trains chug along the floor, puppets stand in for Laura’s two young children, there are occasional acrobatics, and the stage is always cluttered with characters. The staff at the railway tea room where Laura and Alec meet are fleshed out, their roles developed so that eventually there are two additional love affairs on display, running in tandem with Laura and Alec’s. The crucial difference is of course one of social class. These characters are far less inhibited, they flirt and cavort in a way the thwarted couple cannot.
This point quickly becomes laboured and there is a sense of relief when Rice finally hones in on the main characters in the production’s more emotive second half, but the beefing up of the supporting characters does make a valid point about the outside (and inside) pressures to which the couple are subject. Like Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady, they are driven to do what is good and right, even if their own happiness suffers as a result. Laura’s husband is not an Osmond, he is not a cruel man, just a little dull and stuffy, if also kind and clearly baffled by the sudden distance he feels between himself and his wife.
While Rice’s production riffs and tussles with certain aspects of the story, it also understands when to leave alone and, in the end, remains true to the spirit of the film. Brief Encounter was released in 1944 but set in 1938. Ideas of duty and sacrifice weigh heavily on the couple and it is inevitable that in the final heart/head face off, the head wins out and the heart packs its bags and takes a job in Johannesburg.
This touring production features a new cast, with Hannah Yelland’s Laura in particular standing out. With her wide eyes, era-appropriate cheekbones and clipped vowels, she somehow managing to convey waves of hidden passion even while dangling from a chandelier.
Reviewed for musicOMH.