Emma Rice’s brave musical version of Brief Encounter, is a comic tribute to the 1945 black and white film of the same name, written by Noël Coward, directed by David Lean and starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson as two ill-fated lovers who meet and fall in love at a railway station after she gets grit in her eye. You have to admit, there is something amusing about that.
First produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre before conquering the West End in 2008 and going on to tour the UK, US and Australia, this welcome revival is currently being staged at Empire Cinema Haymarket (which used to be a theatre) in association with the famed Cornwall based theatre company Kneehigh Productions and Old Vic Theatre, with Rice having recently stepped down as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe.
Appealing to those who wish to relive the magic of a film that earned its place as one of the most poignant of the day, due largely to Rachmaninov’s soaring Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, with an eye-catching set design by Neil Murray this show goes to town on the original concept and is all the more enjoyable for being 20 minutes shorter; running at a swift pace for 85 minutes straight through without an interval.
You’re encouraged to get your popcorn and see the experience as half cinema, while a handful of the musicians/actors shortly to appear on stage entertain the audience in the lobby ahead of the performance before doubling up as ushers to show you to your seat with jokes aplenty. When the show opens brilliantly designed projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington enhance the atmosphere further, and the two leads (Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon) sit in the front row just as if they were settling down to watch the story of their life.
Pollen is an absolute fit as bored, overlooked housewife Laura Jesson, (the role originally played by Ceilia Johnson), as is the acclaimed Scottish actor Sturgeon as GP Alec Harvey, with whom Mrs Jesson, after he gets said grit out of her eye, goes on to meet for apparently harmless lunches and cinema outings, shortly followed by emotional goodbyes at the station. That is, after a weak cup of tea and a stale bun served by the screeching station tea room owner Myrtle Baggot (played by the hilarious Lucy Thackeray) who bosses her hapless assistant Beryl (Beverly Rudd) to great comic effect. When Laura gets back home, Dean Nolan is her crossword-loving, cardigan-wearing husband, Fred, and puppets are used for their two children.
Using only songs written by Coward that unfortunately don’t always fit the plot, including ‘Go Slow Johnny’, ‘Bora Bora’ and ‘Any Little Fish’, if you think the lyrics are poor without realising who wrote them, you’ll be amused when you find out. It’s charming that this Brief Encounter is a celebration of Coward but the songs are ultimately what make it a rather lacklustre musical, with the exception of the talented singer and musician Jos Slovick who also stars as Stanley, the unlikely love interest of the dumpy Beryl. Slovick is someone I expect to see a lot more of, possibly as a solo performer.
It’s not easy to see a work, epitomising nostalgia and the romance of 1940s cinema, suddenly take on an entirely new meaning; embracing farce wholeheartedly, One Man, Two Guvnors-style, and poking fun at characters once intended to be no more than mildly amusing. But, like me, this production is certain to warm on you, for there is a definitive turning point when the treasured memories of the film float away (quite literally) and you find yourself entertained and delighted by Rice’s highly creative and brilliantly choreographed homage, which ramps up the emotional side of the plot after the first hour to deliver an impressive and surprisingly moving finale.
Like many a restaurant critic who thinks they can cook better than the chef, so I was initially guilty of imagining how I might have adapted this treasured screenplay differently, though the result would have been unbelievably boring and ultimately pointless. What would be the purpose of sitting through a live stage production that was a second-rate carbon copy of the film? In order to succeed Rice had to bring something entirely new to the party whilst capturing the magic of the wartime era when lovers were torn between loyalty and living for the day – and she does.
Brief Encounter at Empire Cinema Haymarket until 2 September 2018. Production images by Steve Tanner. Running time approximately 85 minutes with no interval. Tickets from £20. For more information and to book please visit the website.