BWW Reviews: Film & Stage Make the Perfect Affair in Kneehigh's BRIEF ENCOUNTER
Remember those sappy romances from the 1930's and 1940's? Think you've seen 'em all? Think you've seen enough of 'em, already? Guess again: England's Kneehigh Theater, currently in residence at the Landsburgh, breathes new life into the old genre, and not only makes them a joy to watch, they've managed a few technical marvels as well.
The fun of Brief Encounter, Kneehigh's homage to playwright Noël Coward, begins right in the lobby before the show, as their house band-in Neil Murray's period costumes-strikes up a classic hit or two to accompany your walk to your seat. The fact that some in the band also moonlight as characters in the play lends the show a breezy, improvisational feel-as does the impression that the characters feel just as much at home sitting alongside us as they do onstage.
The plot of Brief Encounter was, for its time, quite daring: a well-to-do man and woman, both married, have a fleeting affair after a chance meeting at a railway station. The trajectory of their passion-which, of course, must end in tears-can be guessed at from the moment they meet; but both Laura and Alec seem so nice, so civilized, that we can sympathize and even forgive them as they plot the betrayal of their spouses. Looking back, another sub-plot emerges that for us can be even more compelling: as director Emma Rice points out, Coward himself was a gay man, which meant he would have watched many of his friends marry in an attempt to hide (or even suppress) their true orientation. Although the coupling on stage is heterosexual, the possibility of a gay subtext-then as now-lends the play even greater dramatic force.
If younger audiences know Noël Coward at all, it would through his film cameos from the 60's, the most famous being his droll mob boss with a fetish for the Queen in The Italian Job. Fun and games aside, Coward had a reputation as an edgy and innovative writer, who pushed the envelope of British theatre and film for much of his career. When he decided to turn a short two-hander, Still Life, into the full-length feature film Brief Encounter he insisted on adding touches-lower-class flirtations, actual classical music (Rachmaninoff features prominently)-that gave his producers fits but which have helped make the movie as enduring in its popularity in England as Casablanca is here.
Kneehigh has distilled Coward's more playful side, with actors doubling roles and the action routinely interrupted by Coward tunes which turn out to be apropos of the action and sometimes in humorous ways. Leading the cast are Hannah Yelland and Jim Sturgeon as Laura and Alec; Yelland reprises her Tony-nominated performance here, and capturing the yearning and essential goodness of her character even as she goes against everything she was raised to do. Sturgeon, meanwhile, offers us a stoic doctor Alec, who shows some signs of the boyishness he had had to suppress in order to lead a more respectable life.
Because of the production's format, it is the supporting players who succeed in stealing the show out from under our romantic leads, time and again. The couple meets at a railroad café, which has its own romances on the wing, and so even as we lament the central romance's short life, we get to root for the 'commoners' as they seek love on their own terms. Annette McLaughlin gives a hilarious turn as the café manager Myrtle, flirting mercilessly with station attendant Albert (one of Joe Alessi's roles-more on him later). As a band member Damon Daunno, the token Yank in the cast, gives truly wonderful interpretations of some of Coward's melodies; but he also proves his comic chops as Stanley, another station attendant. Stanley's romantic interest, Beryl, is played here with sauce and relish by Dorothy Atkinson, an actress whose prodigious talents are on display in numerous roles here; Atkinson's ability to change stature, attitude and voice on a dime is absolutely protean, and a highlight of the show.
Fun and games aside we still get a glimpse of the stable, domestic life that Laura risks destroying; designer Neil Murray gives us the drab earth tones of her home, and Laura's husband Fred is likewise costumed so as to disappear into the comfy chair he occupies each night. As Fred, Joe Alessi gives us a truly sympathetic performance, a husband and a quiet but steady guy whose fatal flaw seems to be his acceptance of everything that goes on around him. His attempts to reach out to Laura, and his ability to swallow his jealousy, are memorable.
Visually, the most stunning achievement of the production-and one that Kneehigh has somewhat patented-is the integration of big-screen film with stage action. The projection and film team of Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll have created the faux-40's cinematic look of trains, stations, restaurant menus, etc., which not only sets the mood for each scene but which also seem to swallow actors whole, through split-second timing and split-screens. It's worth seeing this bit of magic, but the good news is that it's by no means the only attraction here.
Photo Credit: The ensemble of Kneehigh's U.S. tour of Brief Encounter. Photo by Jim Cox.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Performances are March 29-April 13, 2014 at the Landsburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets call calling 202-547-1122, or at: www.ShakespeareTheatre.org