“Brief Encounter”, Kneehigh

Jeremy Malies in the West End
12 March 2018


“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is” comes from another Noël Coward play. The music in Kneehigh’s revival of their Brief Encounter project may be familiar but it’s one of many sumptuous elements in this witty homage to the 1945 film.

Kneehigh are a Cornwall-based company who premiered Brief Encounter in 2007 before taking it for two tours of the US, a long run on Broadway and to Australia. It’s now playing in the performance space of the former Empire Cinema, Leicester Square.

Director and adapter Emma Rice has recently emerged from a torrid period in charge of Shakespeare’s Globe. Her programme notes for the production are a prose poem. She has been generous to this magazine with her time, giving us amusing and even confessional interviews. Rice is back on track and deserves this day in the sun.

In case anybody is enviably young, the plot follows a doctor (Alec played by Jim Sturgeon) and a genteel housewife (Laura played by Isabel Pollen) who are both trapped in sedate unfulfilled marriages and have a short affair after meeting in a railway café.

The hybrid venue allows all sorts of good gags with cast members greeting us dressed as cinema ushers. The hard-working Dean Nolan who goes on to play several of the principal characters gave me some popcorn and was only flummoxed when I asked if he could make the story end more happily.

Format flits between dialogue performed in a conventional manner on the stage and continuation of the story as recorded film footage projected onto the cinema screen. When Alec leaves Laura at the station tea room after one of their trysts, he walks through a split in the curtain and we suddenly see him projected on screen waving to her from a carriage being pulled by a steam locomotive. Consummate stuff and technically assured though elsewhere a sequence in which the couple are flown on chandeliers becomes laboured.

The broad sweep of the piece is overpowering but there are many closely observed details. Nolan is the loyal but vaguely suspicious husband back at home. He is literally monochrome since we only see him in the black and white footage, this being symbolic of the colourless marriage. Inspired components include a steam pressure gauge on the train which indicates a likely explosion as the couple’s (subjugated) emotions threaten to boil over. The social setting of a suburban railway junction showing affluent travellers contrasted with railway staff doing menial work is evoked subtlety.

Everything is understated; Rice describes the affair as a ‘micro marriage’ and as with the film, the script leaves us in doubt as to whether the romance is ever consummated. Impressive at all times, Pollen’s acting hits top gear when she complains of feeling cheap after the couple are interrupted during a moment of intimacy.

I didn’t grasp the meaning of repeated sequences of Laura swimming in a vast expanse of ocean though this may be an oblique borrowing from Coward’s poetry which Emma Rice lists as source material. The printed programme included a linen handkerchief. Always comfortable about crying in public, I was prepared to sob fit to beat the band but never found myself weeping.

The undoubted star is Jos Slovick who multi-tasks in many minor roles and finds new readings of Coward’s own songs while accompanying himself on ukulele. A product of Youth Music Theatre UK, Slovick already has a body of work behind him but this should catapult his career. He is central to the comedy contributed by the cafe staff which is a major element of Coward’s 1936 play Still Life from which the film and Rice’s adaptation draw heavily.

Perhaps the message is that our only genuine happiness is snatched and transient. It’s as true of Brief Encounter as the many fairy tales that Emma Rice has adapted for Kneehigh. She often inhabits a hinterland between real life and the folkloric. Ultimately the project is a little showy and disjointed, falling between too many stools and not being packed with enough substantial ideas. It’s an interesting ride to the famed Milford Junction but never whistle-stop and at times it hits the buffers. I wasn’t clamouring for another journey.