A hint for when you go to Brief Encounter: Well, the first hint is go. It’s terrific. The second hint is, after they take your ticket and you pass the coat check, stay in that part of the lobby. Between five and ten minutes before curtain, the night I saw it, a four-person combo (with instruments including bass guitar, ukulele, and spoons — really, spoons) came out and played a number. It was a wonderful preview of the sort of not-quite-expected delights we were in store for. I felt sorry for the over-punctual folks who had already gone into the theatre, though I don’t know if they were treated to something in there that I missed.
When we strolled into the theatre, the combo was reassembling in the boxes at the Lansburgh Theatre and were joined by a couple of singers. All were dressed in outfits suggesting a sort of mash-up of early movie ushers and hotel bellhops. Since the lobby number had a tinge of continental exoticism, I was put in mind of the previews I’d seen for the new Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Once the play began, the association felt even more apt, as I found I was enjoying the style and the sense of humor of Brief Encounter the way I had enjoyed, say, Moonrise Kingdom. Fans of Anderson (and that sort of indie movie in general) who don’t generally go to the theatre might join more traditional audiences (and Noël Coward aficionados) in appreciating Brief Encounter. As will film buffs who recall the movie Brief Encounter, or even just the era when, as one of the characters says before going to the movies, we always loved getting lost in the dark.
Although best known in its film version, also called Brief Encounter, the story began as a one-act play called Still Life, which was part of Coward’s Tonight at 8:30, an anthology of nine one-acts presented over three evenings. All were written as vehicles for Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, his platonic muse and great friend. Director David Lean and Coward expanded and renamed the play when it was filmed in 1945. The film became a hit, a tear-jerking romantic classic, and an iconic example of the British inclination to maintain appearances and conceal unwieldy emotions under proper behavior and manners.
The story, familiar to older readers and film buffs, is about a man and a woman, respectable, middle-class English folks, each married to other people, who meet in a train station. She gets a speck in her eye. He’s a doctor and takes it out. They meet again, innocently enough, begin to get to know each other, and then fall in love. Because they are so respectably British, the conundrum of what to do about their feelings consumes both of them.
This production from Kneehigh, a theatre company from Cornwall on the South coast of England, has been adapted and directed by Emma Rice, who used both the one-act and Coward’s screenplay in crafting her adaptation, and who retains the heart of the story and much of the dialogue. She also adds a more modern sensibility. The Anderson-esque sense of humor, for instance, makes the production distinct from the film, with its understated acting style. This somewhat burlesque approach is more comedic (and includes puppets as a pair of children and a pair of dogs). Rice also uses a lot of music, both from the period and original to the production, in a way that adds a gorgeous texture to the proceedings, sometimes humorous and sometimes poignant.
Film is also used in a really clever way. The plush, pink curtain before which some of the pre-show music is played, is drawn up to reveal a film screen with black-and-white images: a British censor certificate of approval and film-like credits. A live actor, early on, steps through a slit in the film screen and then appears, larger-than-life, in the footage. Throughout the show, we see projections of menus (the couple see each other mostly at restaurants or at the cafe in the train station), images of waves crashing and trains speeding by that mirror the swelling emotions of the lovers, scenes of our heroine swimming and playing the piano (echoing things she talks about in the dialogue) and of the couple rowing a boat on a small lake.
The design is tremendous. The Designer is Neil Murray (which means, in the British context, that he did both sets and costumes). The Projection and Film Designers are Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll, who work seamlessly not only with Murray, but also with Lighting Designer Malcom Rippeth. The toggling back and forth between scenes involving color and those that match the black and white of the film component is really cool.
Hannah Yelland is Laura, she of the vulnerable eye. Yelland was nominated for a Tony when the production played Broadway a few years ago, and last season she played Hermione at Shakespeare Theatre Company, which is hosting Kneehigh as part of its STC Presentation Series. It would be easy for Laura’s hand-wringing to become monotonous; that it doesn’t is a tribute to subtle work by Yelland and Rice that keeps us engaged. During the final moments, Laura’s passions well up in a manner that (with the station setting and images of moving trains) suggests she could go the way of Anna Karenina. There is also a montage of film scenes featuring close-ups of her on the lake and playing piano. Eventually, she lands (literally) back home. The sequence is wonderfully evocative, a sterling example of acting, directing, and design working together to striking effect.
Jim Sturgeon, as the Doctor with the talented hands, seemed a bit strained to me at first. As he had to project in a mid-size theatre, he left me remembering and missing the hushed tones of Trevor Howard in the movie. As soon as the couple began to get to know each other though, he relaxed and was charming, and totally banished from my mind memories of his predecessor (one of the most under-rated of British film actors, IMHO).
And the rest of the cast: wow! Four other actors and two musicians complete the company, and they create vivid, crystal clear impressions in many roles. I actually thought there was one more woman among them. It wasn’t until I consulted the program afterwards that I realized that Annette McLaughlin and Dorothy Atkinson were doing all of the women’s roles. It made me want to go back to track their character changes more closely. Wonderful in everything they do, it is especially a series of nosy acquaintances Laura encounters that I will remember, each having a different level of understanding of the compromised situation Laura is in and a distinct reaction to it.
Joe Alessi (who begins the evening impressively playing those spoons) astonishes in a series of roles. He is Laura’s oblivious husband. (We don’t meet the Doctor’s family; Laura’s children are indicated by the puppets.) He mines the humor as a train station employee, then is beautifully forceful yet intimidated in the same part when a couple of soldiers get rowdy in the café. He follows a comic dance with one of the women (which stops the show) with a subtle reading of the Doctor’s friend who interrupts an intended tryst, perfectly capturing British indirection as the man stays chummy, implies understanding, and then asks for his flat keys back.
The actor who anchors the musical numbers is Damon Daunno, and I just loved him. Surprisingly, he turns out to be the Yankee in the cast. His callow station boy is charming, but it was during the musical numbers that he really shined. He had one foot firmly in the period, and the other on more contemporary ground. Or perhaps I should say progressively more contemporary ground; after a number during which I felt that his vocal stylings were reminiscent of 80s retro new wave bands like Blow Monkeys and Roman Holiday came a number when he played an electric guitar and broke out some almost rock-band moves. (This was the number mentioned above that featured Alessi, to audience delight, baring his chest during a dance of seduction.)
My favorite scene was the one after the lovers fall into the lake and go to some kind of boat house. Laura takes off her blouse, the Doctor his wet shoes and socks. As he expresses his feelings and inquires about hers, Daunno underscores the scene by singing a beautifully poignant song called “Go Slow, Johnny.” A wonderful tension is created between the tentativeness of the characters and the less inhibited yet bittersweet vocal. It leads up to the big kiss. (Of course, the source film was from an era when you didn’t talk about sex scenes, you talked about the film kiss.)
The Musical Director is Ian Ross and Original Music has been written by Stu Barker. Some of the pre-show songs are recognizable (“Honeysuckle Rose” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”) but I didn’t recognize the songs sung during the play, except two by Coward (“Mad About the Boy” and “A Room with a View,” the latter delivered wistfully by Sturgeon) so I presume most of those were original. The musicians are Dave Brown and James Gow, and they add a lot to the evening. It is Gow who does most of the lugging of that enormous bass and who also plays a gorgeous trumpet during one song. (The PR office at STC told me that all of the music was generated live by the actors. I had asked because, in these days of heavy mic-ing, sometimes it looks as if someone isn’t actually playing because the sound seems to be coming from a different direction.)
Closes April 13, 2014
Kneehigh Theatre at
450 7th Street NW
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $30 – $75
Tuesdays thru Sundays
After the scene with the soldiers, I wished that more had been made of the moment when (in another example of British indirection), rather than thanking Alessi’s character explicitly, McLaughlin does it somewhat more implicitly by acceding to his request for an after-hours meeting. I thought an opportunity was missed for one of those Coward-Terrence Rattigan lump-in-the-throat moments before moving on to the next (very deserved) laugh. But these are small quibbles about a marvelously well-realized evening.
As the characters talk about how they must control themselves while in the throes of passion, about feelings of guilt over not even actions but just longings, how they associate self-respect and decency with self-denial in this sort of circumstance, it’s clear that Brief Encounter is of a time and place distant from our world. However, by telling an anachronistic tale with a modern twist, Rice and company dust off something old and make it engagingly new.
Kneehigh Theatre tour of Brief Encounter . Adapted and Directed by Emma Rice . Featuring Hannah Yelland, Jim Sturgeon, Joe Alessi, Dorothy Atkinson, and Annette McLaughlin. Musicians: Dave Brown and James Gow . Scenic and Costume Designer: Neil Murray . Lighting Designer: Malcolm Rippeth . Projection and Film Designers: Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington . Associate Projection Designer: Stephen Parkinson . Sound Designer: Simon Baker . Associate Sound Designer: Andy Graham . Puppet Designer and Maker: Lyndie Wright . Original music by Stu Barker . Associate Director: Simon Harve. Musical director:Ian Ross . Brief Encounter’s unique incorporation of many mediums was orchestrated by Puppet Trainer Sarah Wright and Director of Underwater Filming Robin Kewell. asting: Sam Jones . Producer: Paul Crewes is theproducer. Originally produced by David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers and Cineworld . Produced by Kneehigh Theatre . Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Christopher Henley.