The Three Faces of BRIEF ENCOUNTER's Dorothy Atkinson

picDorothy Atkinson is a triple threat in Broadway’s Brief Encounter, an adaptation of the classic film romance and the Noel Coward play on which it was based. Yes, Atkinson acts, sings and dances in the show. But her real triple threat is the trio of scene-stealing parts she plays, ranging from youth to middle age to geriatric. Her main role is Beryl Waters, the young tearoom assistant smitten with her coworker Stanley. The diminutive Atkinson cavorts with tall, lanky Gabriel Ebert as Stanley while crooning such Coward songs as “Mad About the Boy” and “Any Little Fish.” Midway through the play, Atkinson shuffles on stage in the guise of Hermione Rolandson, a dotty old woman with a mangy little dog on a leash. And then in a scene mixing heartbreak and laughs, Atkinson interrupts the final goodbyes of thwarted lovers Laura and Alec as Laura’s self-absorbed acquaintance Dolly Messiter. (Atkinson also shows up in one scene as a bespectacled waitress.)

All three Atkinson characters exist in the 1945 film Brief Encounter, but the movie is focused steadily on Laura and Alec, the housewife and doctor married to other people who fall in love with each other after meeting innocently at a train station. Expanding the secondary characters came along with all the comic relief, dream sequences and musical interludes that adapter/director Emma Rice injected into the famously stiff-upper-lip romance for this stage version, which originated at the Kneehigh Theatre in southern England, then played on London’s West End and at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn prior to Broadway.

The Brief Encounter cast comprises two Americans who joined the show for its Broadway run, along with Atkinson and four other British actors who’ve been with it since the original Kneehigh production in Cornwall and are all making their Broadway debuts. Atkinson’s London stage credits include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Beauty and the Beast with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Epitaph for George Dillon by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton, Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh and Alan Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves. She’s worked extensively with Ayckbourn as playwright and/or director—“he writes fantastic parts for women”—at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Yorkshire. On film, she’s appeared in writer-director Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy and All or Nothing. Atkinson met her husband, actor Martin Savage, on Topsy-Turvy and they now have a 6-year-old son.

Between the matinee and evening performances one recent Wednesday, Atkinson spoke with BroadwayWorld in her dressing room about creating multiple characters in Brief Encounter. Here are her insights.

picOn BERYL, who works alongside Mrs. Bagot, proprietor of the rail-station tearoom, and flirts with the boy who sells snacks on the trains
“The only romance in the original play, Still Life, is the central two. We’re the puppy love—the first time, when you can’t quite believe what is happening and there is that ‘Oh, my god’ feeling. We represent that: the first flush and the happiness, the giddiness. Then there’s the forbidden love, which is the central story. And then the older love [Mrs. Bagot and her ticket-taker beau], when you’ve been through a few lovers and you’re a bit weary and then it happens again and it’s a great feeling.
“In the original, Beryl doesn’t have much to say. She’s very much Mrs. Bagot’s sidekick and is quite obedient and a bit more serious. We wanted to have more fun with her. We wanted her to be a bit gawky and daft, lovable. I like to root my characters in something real. I always have people in mind. I’ve done a lot of work with Mike Leigh, the film director, and I learned it from him. He likes you to talk about a long list of real people, and then you formulate the character around it. I think I always did it anyway, but he sort of made it make sense, a formula, so that hopefully it comes over as believable and real. If there wasn’t someone real behind it, it might look too over-the-top. With Beryl, I just kept going back to my mum and my auntie—who come as a pair. They were kids in the ’40s. Looking at pictures of theirs and where they grew up, in an industrial town, and my grandfather—their dad—worked on the railway, it all just seemed to fit. And they’re both still really girlish. I grew up in a family with loads of girls and loads of women [who were] happy and so saucy and cheeky. Particularly my mum and my auntie when they get together. And their mum was the same. I’ve really enjoyed living that on stage.
“We like to think Beryl and Stanley make it, but what’s sad is a few years down the line they’ll be separated, because Stanley will get called up and go fight for his country. Knowing that there’s the sadness to come we’ve always had in the back of our minds—which fuels us to go for the ‘We’re in love and isn’t it fantastic?!’”

picOn HERMIONE, who’s out with her dog and another woman when they come upon their friend Laura dining with Alec
“I read the script and threw in some ideas—some stick and some don’t, but Emma really liked the fact that she was completely ancient. I just wanted to play the oldest person 93.
“I think she’s a smart old bird. Because she’s a bit decrepit, it’s easy to think she might not know [what’s going on between Laura and Alec], but I think that she spotted them and is aware. But then she can’t remember why they’re there in the first place.
“I just love playing characters that are a long way away from me. I used to work at this couture place, and there were a lot of elderly, rich ladies that came in. So Hermione is sort of from that bank of characters—I’ve logged them in my mind and called them up as I go. But also the voice is Hermione Gingold; the name must have triggered something up in my brain. 
“The dog gets all the glory! It’s just a piece of dirty old fur on a stick. It’s literally like a soft toy, with a flat bottom and a metal rod that’s pushed inside a lead, so I manipulate it like a puppet. But there’s not much you can do with it; it’s all in the imagination, I suppose. Sometimes they flip over. It did tip up one day like that [indicates the dog toppling to one side] and looked like it was having a wee.”

picOn DOLLY MESSITER, who chats incessantly to Laura when Alec and Laura are seeing each other for the last time before he moves to South Africa
“She’s blissfully unaware, in a world of her own. She has no clue as to anyone else’s feelings, and she can’t even pick up that this might be an intimate moment. She just blasts in and it’s all about her. Which is why I chose to play her as quite an arch person. Not only is someone ruining that beautiful parting moment, it’s someone that’s really irritating. If she was bumbly and funny, it would take away from the story and the pain, so I wanted to play her as not a particularly likable person...talking openly, gossiping, about somebody having a divorce. And I’m sure she’s had affairs too.
“In the Coward play, she’s much less arch, but I think that’s because she’s there at the beginning of the play. We flipped it around. It’s the beginning of the play and then Laura’s looking back, and she calls her ‘dear old Dolly Messiter.’ I think because she comes at the end of our play and ruins it, I wanted to take the ‘dear old’ out of it. She’s very much a British type woman from that era—got a lot of fortitude and won’t have any messing about. That class that does have someone to look after the children and does have a housemaid and can go off shopping and gossiping. I do like to root it in people I know, so she comes from this old headmistress and somebody who used to teach me at dancing school that I was quite terrified of.”

Catch snippets of Dorothy in all her roles in this video. Brief Encounter has been extended through January 2 at Roundabout Theatre’s Studio 54. Click here for tickets.

Photos of Dorothy in Brief Encounter by Joan Marcus: as Beryl, with Gabriel Ebert; as Hermoine, with Annette McLaughlin; as Dolly, with Hannah Yelland.

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