The Cinema, Haymarket, London
13 July 2008
A pleasing encounter
Staged in a West End cinema on London’s Haymarket, and therefore boasting the comfiest theatre seats in the capital with a slot on the arm of your chair to hold your drink to boot, Brief Encounter is an imaginative, inventive and rather charming theatrical experience.
The iconic 1945 movie was based on a Noel Coward one-act play, Still Life. Now the two have been melded by Emma Rice and the Kneehigh Theatre Company in a multimedia show which is an interesting and inventive hybrid of the two!
The basic story is still there. Laura is a respectable suburban wife, and Alec is a married doctor. They meet at a station buffet, and fall in love over the course of a few meetings but their relationship is doomed never to last.
But enhancing the story in this production is back projection which articulates the characters’ hidden emotions and front projection that in a practical sense allows the characters to get on and off of trains. Both of these imaginatively add to the feeling of being in a cinema.
There are also other relationships in the buffet, brasher, humorous and more relaxed ones which provide a good contrast to the central coupling and highlights a middle class stifling of emotions. And the action is also interspersed with Coward songs which are played in front of the curtain in a music hall style.
Before the production there is a band and singing in the aisles and company members dressed as period usherettes guide you to your seats. During the interval there is more entertainment and spoof cinema adverts from the period selling products such as La-di-dah's Lard! I guess this is to give you a feel of what Laura and Alec might have experienced on one of their illicit meetings at the flicks. Indeed, as the play opens, the couple are watching from the front row.
They argue that the relationship can no longer continue whilst on the screen Laura’s dependable husband pleads with her to return. She then seamlessly walks “through” the screen to appear with her husband. And this sets the scene for the whole production, a mix of media that holds your attention throughout.
And if you can’t get David Lean’s film and Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard out of your head, you will after a couple of minutes as Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock make the parts their own.
To reproduce Brief Encounter as a straight theatre adaptation or to perform Still Life, there is a real danger that it would appear dated and completely irrelevant to today.
By switching between live action and film footage, and between emotional pain and music-hall exuberance, Kneehigh highlight the passion beneath the self-control and using up-to-date theatre techniques gives it all a more modern feel. Besides, everyone knows what happens so you may as well have a bit of fun with it! This has the best of all worlds – and comfy seats as well!