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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Since this live Brief Encounter features all manner of canny multi-media effects, not to mention nine Coward songs (either Coward's music and lyrics, or Coward's lyrics with music by Stu Barker) has the original story been discarded as too dated in the interest of something more timely? Is Coward's bittersweet love story now simply a hook for a semi-musical parody?
The good news is that the production remains faithful to the film's plot based on a half-hour one-act play named Still Life. It begins, like the film, with Alec, a doctor, removing a dust speck from suburban matron Laura's eye in a London railway station and ends with their inevitable, painful parting.
By using the sophisticated stagecraft available to contemporary directors, Rice has created a hybrid of live drama with black and white filmic details and music that takes us into the inner landscape of these people whose passionate yearnings were hidebound by the social structure of the late 30s. She's also retained Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, chosen by Coward himself to accompany Laura and Alec's tame embraces and use it to create the sense of this being a throbbing symphony of love. The addition of Coward's music hall style songs makes this more of a light-hearted homage than a campy parody.
Of course, golden oldie film buffs who consider Lean's 1945 film perfection that's not to be diddled with may disagree. They were horrified by the 1976 television remake which proved that even Sophia Loren and Richard Burton couldn't erase the giant shadow of Cecilia Johnson and Trevor Howard. That attempt to recapture the magic of Johnson and Howard's understated yet heart gripping performances was indeed awful, totally lacking in the cleverness of Kneehigh's approach.
I'm not a purist when it comes to newfangled interpretations of anything stamped as a classic. I liked the 4-actor stage version of The 39 Steps every bit as much, if not more, than the Hitchcock movie. Still, the concert before the curtain went up and the first ten or fifteen minutes had me wishing I could be home watching the original film on the Turner Movie Channel. But before long the savvy conceit of the Kneehigh concept and its execution kicked in and I stopped making apples and orange comparisons. Instead I gave myself over to the way Rice has managed to use the stage to evoke the aura of the film's social strata to create a play with music and vaudevillian comic touches. Her concept makes us aware of how the love that in 1938 dared not speak out did not just apply to middle class married like Laura and Alec but Gay men like Coward. .
To create a sense of being back in a circa 1946 movie theater, Rice has her Laura and Alec (Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock) seated in the front row watching the film's actors — at Studio 54 that means the little tables at the foot of the stage. The actors leave their audience seats and literally move into the screen which will continue to serve as a back drop for the action shifts between the railroad station tearoom where the romance begins, Laura's home and the train track which at one point threatens to turn into an Anna Karenina ending.
The tearoom scenes also focus on the relationships between two working class couples: Albert (Joseph Alessi who also does well as Laura's boring but ultimately sensitive husband Ben-- while her children are played by puppets), the stationmaster, and Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), the tearoom manager who stands out with her rendition of "No Good at Love" and "Mad About the Man" . . . also, Stanley (Gabriel Ebert), the candy vendor, and Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson) the skateboarding waitress (that three-wheeled kiddie vehicle does push the vaudevillian sensibility a bit too hard). These less convention bound couplings, besides ramping up the production's comic aspects also serve as a sendup of the uptight morality of pre-World War II England and as harbingers of a freer society to come.
The best thing about the production is the way it gradually taps into the throat-tightening emotions of the film. Some of the scenes used to show Laura and Alec caught in the grip of something totally alien to their ordinary lives are extraordinarily imaginative. The dreamlike actualization of their feelings as actions include stunning images of them joyously letting go of repression by dancing, soaring upward courtesy of chandeliers as parachutes. A scene showing them rowing on a lake and then right on stage where they remove their wet clothes to the tune of "Go Slow, Johnny." Also outstanding are the train images; for example, we see Laura waving to a train carrying Alec away; also watching her poised on a framework above a speeding train below, close to acting on her "I wish I were dead."
While Trevor Howard and Cecilia Johnson can rest easy in their heavely perch without worry about losing their status as THE Laura and Alec, Hannah Yellan and Tristan Sturrock handle the real and wish fulfillment demands of this production's roles very well indeed. But in this entertaining hybrid, the frisky, quick with a song minor characters come close to stealing the show.
Most likely Kneehigh's Brief Encounter will divide audiences and critics into nay and yea sayers. Our critics of the London and Brooklyn production are a case in point, the former finding it "not quite her cup of station cafe tea," the latter savoring its blend of laughter and heartbreak. You may also react as I did, initially ready to switch from this old and new flavored blend to something purer, but fairly quickly coming around to enjoying its tangy coup-de-theater freshness.
The music introduced in this production also led Simon Saltzman to ruminate on other screen to stage adaptations, both sung and unsung. To see what he had to say go here