BWW Review: BRIEF ENCOUNTER, Empire Cinema Haymarket
Emma Rice begins her association with the Old Vic by reviving her version of Brief Encounter. It has recently been performed at the Birmingham Rep (where it first began life 11 years ago) and the Lowry in Salford, but now makes a return to the West End for a run at the Empire Cinema. The screen has been specially adapted to suit a theatre production, with a stage added in for the occasion.
Laura and Alec meet by chance in a train station café; she gets some grit in her eye and he (a doctor) helps her to remove it. They end up bumping into each other a couple more times, and end up spending an afternoon together at the pictures.
It sounds innocent enough, but this is 1938 and both are married with children - though Laura's initial worries about what her husband might think are unfounded, as he doesn't bat an eyelid when she tells him. The pair continue to meet regularly, and develop feelings for one another - as one of the other characters remarks, "it will end in tears".
The show is based on the film and the original play (Still Life), both written by Noël Coward, and embraces the best of both worlds in its presentation. Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington provide some clever projection design, which is incorporated into the show very cleverly; from the train steaming through the station, to characters walking from the stage straight onto the screen, this provides a large dose of theatre magic.
It's played out on a set (designed by Neil Murray) that is incredibly versatile, with a bridge to add some height, and lots of nooks and crannies for the musicians to stow away in (or the actors to appear from). To produce this in such a unique venue is a remarkable feat indeed - the worlds of stage and screen have been brought together in a loving union.
Another nice touch is the pre-show entertainment: members of the cast make their way around the auditorium performing a few songs as the audience starts to make their way in. Other than Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor", all of the songs are Noël Coward's writing, with Kneehigh's Stu Barker composing the music that accompanies about half of them. They set the scene delightfully, and you really do feel like you've gone through a portal to the past.
Alongside Alec and Laura's doomed affair are two other potential couples; the contrast between love that can be followed freely and that which must be given up provides a beautifully bittersweet tinge. Lucy Thackeray is hilarious as refreshment room manager Myrtle Bagot, with her faux-posh accent regularly slipping despite her best efforts to impress the customers.
Dean Nolan opposite her as Albert Godby bumbles his way into her affections, the pair performing an incredibly memorable routine to "So Good At Love". Stanley and Beryl both work for Myrtle, Jos Slovick and Beverley Rudd making a quirky and sweet combination as they navigate young love.
Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon are captivating leads, capturing the reserved nature of early 20th century life as well as showing true joy and free spirits as events start to get out of hand. Pollen's distress as Laura bids Alec farewell for the final time is deeply moving; her realisation that home life has become stale, but also that she has no choice but to return, is heartbreaking indeed.
This is a truly stunning revival that revels in its special surroundings, and we can but hope that its latest encounter with the West End is not too brief.
Picture credit: Steve Tanner