Brief Encounter – February 2008

8/10

By Noel Coward, adapted by Emma Rice

Directed by Emma Rice

Company: Kneehigh

Venue: The Cinema, Haymarket

Date: Wednesday 13th February 2008

This was definitely the best combination of cinema and theatre I’ve ever seen. The way the two media were blended together created a tremendous experience, and the seats were a lot comfier too. And there were cucumber sandwiches in the intermission!

The story of Brief Encounter is comingled with several Noel Coward songs and poems, performed by the staff at the railway station, a talented bunch who can turn their hands to most things. As well as sporting a magnificent rear end and selling delicious looking cakes, the chief tea lady Tamzin Griffin plays the cello and sings. Her helper, Amanda Lawrence, also sings and dances, and there are contributions by the others as well.

First, the set. The entire width of the stage was used, with plush curtains coming across to screen off the sides occasionally. At other times we could see the scaffolding on each side, with the stairs leading up to the gantry at the back. There was an oven door set into the back wall, the tea shop counter on the left, and some tables and chairs to the right. The back wall was used as a screen, while another screen, made of strips, came down near the front on several occasions, and allowed characters to slip on and off screen – very effective. It was mainly used to show Laura rejoining her husband. The first time, she was obviously reluctant to leave her lover, but later, there was a sense of finality, as she chooses her husband over Alec. When needed, the same chairs and lamp were brought on for a scene with her husband on the stage. Their children were large puppet dolls.

The performance started with the ushers and usherettes lining up on each side of the stage, and serenading us with some lovely harmonies. Then the two lovebirds, who were sitting in the middle of the front row, began having an argument. She got up and walked off, and from there we got all sorts of entertainment, some on stage, some in the auditorium, some filmed, some song and dance. But they kept the focus and the momentum going brilliantly throughout.

They made a lot more of the minor characters, but eventually the love story gets underway, and we’re treated to a couple of outstanding performances by Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock as the two lovers. They give us all the necessary emotional restraint and upper class accents, while at the same time making the passion underneath it all believable. This passion is often represented by having a film of waves crashing on the shore projected on the screen at the back, and playing some sweeping classical music as the characters swoon briefly in their chairs in the tea room. On one occasion this segues nicely into a scene with Laura’s husband, where he asks her to turn the music down.

The interval was an intermission, and there were some lovely adverts shown, all done in the style of the day, and finishing with the cheesy grins which are held for a second or two longer than is natural. Then the cucumber sandwiches arrived, and we both had one – lovely.

In the second half, we get the scene where the lovers’ final parting is ruined by a friend of Laura arriving and taking over the conversation. She’s played here by Amanda Lawrence, who also plays Beryl in the tea-room. She’s wearing an outrageously long feather on her hat – nearly pokes Alec’s eye out – and she has a cheeky wee dog that steals the show. It’s another puppet, or perhaps a mop, but with a massive personality. After the curtain calls, the final piece of music accompanying our exit is Joe Jackson’s Fools in Love – very appropriate.

This is Kneehigh as I like them best – imaginative, inventive, and telling a story well, despite all the apparent distractions. We left the theatre, sorry cinema, or was it a theatre…? Anyway, we left feeling very happy, especially as there’d been a few sniffles to accompany the many laughs.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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