Empire Cinema Haymarket – until 2 September. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Emma Rice’s musical adaptation of Brief Encounter returns to the Empire Cinema after ten years, and still has the power to entrance and excite. Noel Coward’s oh so British love story, set in the stifling social order of post war Britain has been lampooned for many years, but Emma Rice’s loving treatment of the story is filled with nostalgia, passion and gentle knowing humour.
When Laura gets some grit in her eye on the station platform, doctor Alec assists her. A tentative romance blossoms, but they are both married, and cannot escape their responsibilities without being harshly judged by society. Rice keeps this central romance very true to Coward’s original characters, with stilted language and lingering silent glances, but introduces two contrasting love affairs highlighting the class divide. The darkness of Coward’s film remains, but the supporting characters are brought to live in vibrant and exuberant colour.
The mix of projection and live action still impresses, with the cinematic scenes feeling perfect in the large cinema auditorium. There is the hint of the technicolour magic experienced when Dorothy goes to Oz as the black and white films dissolve and the bright colours onstage shine through. Thrown in with the technical wizardry is Kneehigh’s signature homespun ethos, charming the audience with model trains and scene stealing toy dogs. Noel Coward’s songs are used to glorious effect, with Stu Barker’s music perfectly fitting the period setting. A standout sequence involves Laura and Alec silently interacting as Jos Slovick sings Go Slow Johnny with an amazingly luxurious tone that wouldn’t have been out of place at one of Coward’s soirees. In familiar Kneehigh style, before the show begins, the musicians and cast (in vintage usher outfits) wander around the auditorium, playing, singing and exchanging banter with the audience. The cast are superb, with Isabel Pollen heartbreakingly brilliant as Laura and Jim Sturgeon decent and dashing as Alec. Comic relief comes from Jos Slovak and Beverly Rudd as young flirty couple Stanley and Beryl, and Lucy Thackeray and Dean Nolan as Myrtle Bagot and Albert. Thackeray is hysterical as Myrtle, capturing the swift slips between the pretentious accent used for customers and her true working-class roots. Her not quite clandestine romance with Albert is a refreshingly physical, and funny, antidote to the frustrating stiffness Laura and Alec must show.
Charming, nostalgic, witty, clever, and touchingly romantic, Brief Encounter blends the best of cinema and theatre to create an unforgettable magical experience – and they even provide a hanky.