Far from a fairy-tale, Noel Coward’s 1945 British romantic drama is credited as a piece of realist cinema, where a whirlwind romance is exposed through its female leads inner monologue and lingering looks. Here, Kneehigh’s stage production uplifts the grounded relationship, taking elements of its nostalgic past and reigniting it with suspenseful scenes of fantasy.
In a railway station café, housewife Laura Jesson (Isabel Pollen) is assisted by doctor Alec Harvey (Jim Sturgeon) allowing a casual friendship to develop into an emotionally fulfilling relationship. Tempted by an affair, the pair struggle to cling to their respectable married lives, fearing the loss of their morals and partners in their new-found freedom.
In keeping with post WW1 culture, this commonplace encounter incorporates steam-age railways, black and white film and a mood to maintain the status quo. Director, Emma Rice absorbs a classical approach to the pairs new friendship, but the action is elevated as desires begin to outweigh their concerns. Alongside the evolving relationship, the production develops in colourful, captivating moments that makes the mundane appear larger than life.
Seven of its musically inclined cast members play instruments live on stage and sing us into the production mimicking the opening of a feature film. The Lowry has even removed all but two of its front row seats, allowing the new lovers to flitter on and off the stage. Despite its melancholy leads personal lives and their fated to fail romance, this production casts a light-hearted and unexpected spin on the original.
The staging is impressively compact, morphing into Laura’s living room, lowering the train platform and transforming into a cinema screen. With an emphasis on the detail, the production's music stays simplistic, only a few characters break into song and nothing distracts from the scenes that capture the reality/fantasy world of its lead characters. But as maintaining family life is side-lined for new adventures, everyday life for Laura and Alec becomes more whimsical. During a dinner scene, high off love, the pair rise out of their seats and swing towards each other, suspended by matching chandeliers.
The two irrational lovers’ relationship blossoms into a frenzied passion where secret exchanges build an ever-tightening web of lies and fear. Isabel Pollen (Laura) and Jim Sturgeon (Alec) build a slowly consuming love affair, but Rice delays audience expectations and allows reality to catch up to the pair. While the couple are painted as every day, middle-class common folk, the actors are anything but old-fashioned and forgettable. Considering the amount of comedy that was distracting the seriousness of the love affair, Pollen and Sturgeon were able to drive the narrative with suspenseful and believable performances.
Brief Encounter balances British traditions with a classic Hollywood approach. The original quiet and straightforward storyline is somewhat weighted down by this prop heavy production, but the sentiment remains the same. Rice offers a vision that refreshes a dated and oppressive narrative. One that would surely fail as a flat-out reboot. Instead, Brief Encounter presents a scandalous musical fusion that is sure to cause a stir.