Theatre Review: BRIEF ENCOUNTER – Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Inventive, moving and nostalgic, Kneehigh’s production of BRIEF ENCOUNTER is a witty and sympathetic homage to Coward’s timeless love story

Bringing a classic movie to life on stage is always a tricky endeavour, especially one as much loved as BRIEF ENCOUNTER. So when Kneehigh’s Emma Rice decided to take on the mammoth task of bringing Noel Coward’s timeless classic to life, it made sense for her to incorporate David Lean’s iconic film into the live action performance.

Based on the famous 1945 film, BRIEF ENCOUNTER tells the love story of respectable suburban wife Laura, who meets the idealistic (and married) doctor Alec at a train station. They pair fall passionately in love and are granted a fugitive glimpse of happiness before the reality of their situation reasserts itself. In this stage adaption, love is also present at the station for two other couples, young café assistant Beryl with Stanley and café manager Mrs Bagot with porter Albert.

Inventive, moving and incredibly nostalgic, Kneehigh’s production of BRIEF ENCOUNTER is a witty and sympathetic homage to Coward’s timeless love story. Combining film footage with live material from Coward’s 1936 one-act stage play STILL LIFE, this multimedia show combines the romance of cinema with the magic and passion of live theatre, to deliver something fresh, innovative and surprising.

Bringing to life the main characters of Alec and Laura is Jim Sturgeon and Isabel Pollen, who capture the pair’s sudden surges of passion and gnawing guilt with sincerity. While they will never compete with our movie memories of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, the quiet chemistry between the pair goes some way to catching the film’s choked emotion and their love affair seems genuinely pure and strong.

Of course, being a Kneehigh production, there is plenty of playfulness, comedy and technical trickery around the fairly naturalistic main plot. Alec and Laura’s reserve, stillness and restraint is nicely brought into contrast by the musical young love of Beryl (Beverly Rudd) and young Stanley (Jos Slovick), and the freedom of Mrs Bagot (Lucy Thackeray) and Albert (Dean Nolan), who all perform with sharp wit, great comic timing and impressive physicality.

The romantic action is also interspersed with a number of Coward ditties, making good use of superb songs such as MAD ABOUT THE BOY, A ROOM WITH A VIEW and GO SLOW, JOHNNY which sit alongside new music by Stu Barker performed by the on-stage musicians.

A couple of the physical theatre routines feel a little misplaced, such as the sequence in which Alec and Laura swing from chandeliers to suggest their passion. The sequence in which Laura sways to a video projection of waves crashing on a beach also could be cut down slightly.

That said, this is a moving adaption with Rice handling Coward’s clipped, restrained and touching love story with care. You also can’t fault the piece for its innovation, with the mixture of film, live performance and music giving a distinctly modern edge to the much loved classic love story.

4 out of 5 stars

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