INTERVIEW: Isabel Pollen on her role as Laura in Kneehigh's BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Jim Sturgeon as Alec and Isabel Pollen as Laura in BRIEF ENCOUNTER. Photo: Steve Tanner

Jim Sturgeon as Alec and Isabel Pollen as Laura in BRIEF ENCOUNTER. Photo: Steve Tanner

Isabel Pollen talks to Frankly My Dear UK about taking on the iconic role of Laura in Kneehigh’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Following its hugely successful run in 2008, Kneehigh’s production of Noël Coward’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER makes a welcome return to the stage.

Running for a limited season at Empire Cinema Haymarket in London’s West End, BRIEF ENCOUNTER tells the timeless love story of Laura and Alec who meet by chance at a railway station café. Despite both being married, the pair fall passionately in love and are granted a fugitive glimpse of happiness before the reality of their situation reasserts itself.

Taking on the iconic role of Laura is Isabel Pollen whose previous work includes AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (National Theatre), THE OBSERVER (National Theatre) and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (RSC). Following the success of the stage production ten years ago, as well as its connection to David Lean’s iconic 1945 film, Pollen is certainly aware of the excitement surrounding the production.

“It is wonderful when people who know the film hear about the show” explains Pollen in an exclusive interview with Donna Kelly from Frankly My Dear UK.

“They are immediately so excited about it and that’s a real joy as an actor. Usually in a production you have to create that excitement but here, it’s kind of handed to you on a plate.”

Anyone who has seen Kneehigh’s production BRIEF ENCOUNTER will know audiences have a right to be excited. Described by Ben Brantley in the New York Times as ‘surely the most enchanting work of stagecraft ever inspired by a movie’, this innovation production switches between live action and film to deliver a multimedia show like no other.

“The film was very much based on the Laura and Alec storyline while our production is based much more on a play by Noel Coward called STILL LIFE” explains Pollen.

“There is a much broader spectrum of storytelling. There is certainly the connection to the film, of course but it is quite different in the way that we’re doing it.”

“The show is a fantastic night out in that it includes theatre, film and live music, so you get all those mediums in one place. There’s a lot a fun, a lot of laughter and a lot of tears. Everything’s in there”.

Isabel Pollen as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as Alec in BRIEF ENCOUNTER. Photo: Steve Tanner

Isabel Pollen as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as Alec in BRIEF ENCOUNTER. Photo: Steve Tanner

Despite those differences, the pressure is still on for those involved in the production. Described as “one of the best romantic films of all time”, BRIEF ENCOUNTER remains a timeless classic for many, ranking second in the British Film Institute’s Top 100 ‘best British films’ list. Pollen, however, still feels she can make the character Laura, originally played by Cecilia Johnson in the film, her own.

“Funnily enough, I don’t feel the pressure so much from the film, more from the fact that this was done ten years ago and was such a huge success” explains Pollen.

“Stepping into a production like this in some ways is amazing because you’re riding on this wave of people who just love it, Emma [Rice] being a crucial part of that. Her passion for this piece is such that I do feel, in a professional way, pressure to do a really good job because it’s an important story to tell.”

“I think that part of our jobs as actors to make very certain choices about the way we are portraying these people and honouring the story, that’s the most important part really. All of us have very much taken ownership of the characters we have and it’s definitely working so far”.

In its day, BRIEF ENCOUNTER was, in many ways, considered controversial. The tale of forbidden love between two married people was considered shocking to many. Yet despite its age, Pollen believes Coward’s classic remains as timeless as ever.

“I think even though our response as a culture now is quite different and we’re more used to hearing these stories now, emotionally it’s the same.”

“It’s about love, spontaneity and heartbreak and the pull between what happens when you fall in love with the “wrong person”. I think every single person throughout history and throughout years to come can relate to that. That for me, is what makes it almost timeless as a piece.”

The role has also given Pollen the opportunity to work closely with Emma Rice, former Artistic Director of Kneehigh.

“It’s been incredible working with Emma. It’s been a dream come true for me” says Pollen.

“What I’ve noticed about pedigree directors like Emma is that they are able to hand over an enormous amount of trust to their actors which is hugely empowering for us and now and again she’ll just add this little piece of magic which just nudges the scene into where it needs to go. She’s absolutely passionate about what she does and she believes every single one of us out there is crucial to the piece and I think both of those things ring true for me as well. It’s just been an absolute joy to work with her.“

BRIEF ENCOUNTER runs at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 2 to 17 February 2018 and The Lowry, Salford from 20 to 24 February 2018 before heading to Empire Cinema Haymarket in London’s West End in March.