There are worse ways to spend a grey, and drizzly Saturday, but wrapped up in Kneehigh Theatre and director Emma Rice’s retell of the 1945 Noel Coward film Brief Encounter is not one of them. The play is warm, at times funny, and sensitively portrays the ordinariness at which two married strangers can meet and fall in love.
The story is based around two people, Laura and Alec, who both lead fairly ordinary lives in pre-war England. They meet at a train station cafe, where Laura has something in her eye and doctor Alec helps her remove it. They sense an instant connection and arrange to meet again, where their friendship becomes something more, despite being married to other people.
Director Emma Rice and the cast do a superb job of portraying what is really a fairly ordinary set of circumstances but builds into something which is ultimately life-changing. Laura is a bored housewife, stuck in a routine, but Isobel Pollen does a great job of showing Laura’s resignation to her role without suggesting that she is seeking anything more. Alec is more vocal about his irritability at his life, with Jim Sturgeon lighting up his character when he talks about his Thursday hospital visits being an almost an escape from his life as a dreary GP.
It’s a strong retelling, with filmic elements used, a nod to the source material, which itself was based on a one-act play. What could ultimately be quite a serious and sombre tale is lightened by the interplay between other characters in the railway station cafe, the proprietor played by Lucy Thackeray and Beverly Rudd’s Myrtle, and the objects of their affections the platform manager, played by Dean Nolan, and Jos Slovick’s cheeky Stanley. Coupled with the romance between Laura and Alec, this allows the audience to see three types of love story in one play.
The tender performances of the two main characters is typically British and does a wonderful job of showing a love story unravelling without placing any morality on their choices, save the turmoil already felt by Laura in the scenes when she returns home to her husband and child. But it feels less about the affair and more about her regimented role as a wife and mother compared to the freedom she feels with Alec.
The narrative is helped along with live music, which also frequently helps to lighten the mood. Songs between Myrtle and Stanley are sweet and playful, and a particularly memorable racy song between Dolly the cafe owner and Albert the platform manager allows Dean Nolan to show off some dance moves. And despite a small aerial piece during Laura and Alec’s blossoming romance, the stage play strays away from too much fantastical elements, though uses props and stage pieces well. The way the actors roam around the audience and interact, as well as the use of the floor space directly in front of the audience really helps bring captivate views.
Kneehigh and Rice’s treatment of Brief Encounter is a captivating and tender retelling of a problematic love story, which is gripping, enchanting and well worth seeing.
Brief Encounter is at the Birmingham Rep until 17 February. For more information or if, like me, you would like to book tickets click here.