BWW Reviews: Staging Noel Coward's BRIEF ENCOUNTER Provides a Brand New Experience for Audiences at the Wallis Annenberg
Noel Coward's film Brief Encounter (1945) based on his 1936 play Still Life, is perhaps one of the finest movies ever made about illicit romance. Now the Kneehigh production from London, which played Broadway in 2010 to great acclaim, an event quite unlike any you will ever see, is being mounted at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through March 23 with some of the original Broadway cast, including the remarkable Hannah Yelland as Laura. Wisely presented in one act without an interval, Brief Encounter never drags and retains a unique solidarity.
Make no mistake, Noel Coward, like George Bernard Shaw, looked down on marriage. It was too conventional to suit his overly flamboyant lifestyle. He saw Laura (Yelland) and her husband Fred (Joe Alessi) living in a boring, dreary existence, where there was affection but assuredly no passion. When Laura accidentally meets a doctor, Alec (Jim Sturgeon) at a train station, the initial attraction is just that, but then after a few occasional meetings, the two fall madly in love. But does this meeting in secrecy fit in with their decency as sensible human beings? Not for Laura, who has two children (deliciously portrayed as puppets) and feels deep loyalty toward family, whether it be destroying her emotionally or not. She opts for respectability, and so the two enjoy their time together, but eventually part when they know they cannot form a permanent bond. Remember Amanda and Elyot from Coward's Private Lives? Whenever they were together, they practically tore each other to shreds. Their attraction was unbeatable, but the relationship far too stormy for them to live permanently together. Such might be the case for Laura and Alec if they pursued more. Coward's characters are strong willed, and when two strong individuals come together, their egos gradually get in the way and love turns sour. Thus, marriage was not for Coward, a known homosexual, and he was gleeful with pen in hand in pointing out its negative effects.
In the film of Brief Encounter, the background of WW II is obvious but in this stage adaptation, which includes the play Still Life as well as the screenplay of Brief Encounter, the atmosphere characters play a much larger part. Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), who owns the tea shop at the train station, her waitress Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson) and the train conductor Albert (also Joe Alessi) play these and a bevy of other characters, both observers of and participants in scandalous love trysts. Love-making comes off as fleeting and somewhat disappointing and amidst the goings on audience cannot help but feel for what Laura and Alec are getting themselves into. Like the ocean hitting the rocks in the film behind, they are swept into something uncontrollable. Mentioning the film behind brings us to the stagecraft utilized here, which dominates the entire piece.
Besides the main action in the tea room, Laura's home and Alec's friend's flat, there is original film footage on a large screen behind which pops in and out quite ingeniously. For example, before the action begins, we see Laura looking at Alec in the foreground onstage and then at her husband Fred onscreen. She leaves Alec and goes up onto the screen, which indicates the choice she has made, kind of reminiscent of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo - even though a film, using a similar technique of crossing between mediums - and also present in the newest stage work about Buster Keaton Stoneface. Film and live action are inter-mixed to great effect. There is also a wonderful scene where Laura is swimming on film and then we see a boat in which she and Alec are riding. Then the film shifts to live action and the scene in the boat plays out onstage. Unpredictable stuff, indeed! And of course, the partial view on film of the train in the background and full view in the foreground when Laura contemplates suicide near the end are brilliantly conveyed.
There is also music throughout the piece which starts in the lobby before the show and the ensemble players in page costumes become the other characters in the tea room. Coward songs like "Mad About the Boy" and "A Room with a View" are performed among others, and I understand that the choice of songs is constantly in flux. The music adds so much more to the action. It punctuates unspoken feelings and makes us think about what Coward is trying to say about love, as well as entertaining the hell out of us. It's like one big vaudeville at times, where the actors sing, dance and cut up like stand-up comedians. There is even puppetry on display for irreverent humor! Don't take this intense love stuff too seriously is what it says to me. Coward would have loved it!
The acting is sublime from this terrific ensemble. Yelland and Sturgeon are riveting in both quiet and more outspoken moments. McLaughlin is hilarious as Myrtle, and she and Atkinson bring down the house as two snooping, gossipy old ladies who spy on Laura and Alec as they walk their dogs. Alessi is just great as Fred and Albert, two very distinct gentlemen. Praise as well to Damon Daunno and to musicians David Brown and James Gow.
Kudos to Emma Rice for her astounding vision as director, to Neil Murray for his wonderful set design, to Stu Barker for his original music, to puppet maker Lyndie Wright, to Sarah Wright for puppetry training and to Robin Kewell for underwater filming.
As I mentioned earlier, this is not a play, not a show, but a multi-media event. Not to worry if you love the story! The basic plot line of Brief Encounter does not get lost. It still shines brightly, and is enhanced by everything surrounding it. Love is at the core, at least Coward's view of it. Don't be afraid of it, jump in and enjoy it while it lasts, but never take it too seriously or you will end up greatly disappointed and bitter, like the old marrieds who should have long ago detached.