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A CurtainUp Review
Kneehigh's artistic director, Emma Rice, has not only mixed elements of the original play with the film script; she also seamlessly moves her characters from audience to the stage and into the screen which is both a backdrop and an essential part of the action. The opening scene presents this device when the theater becomes a movie house and the two lovers at the center of the plot are discovered seated in the audience.
The original film, about a married suburban housewife who falls in love with a similarly hitched doctor she meets in a train station, made an ironic comment on the mores of the British middle class. Rice's post-modern adaptation pokes fun at the sentimental romanticism that was considered so risqué at the time.
The two lovers, Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Tristan Sturrock) are now joined by two other couples: the stationmaster, Albert (Joseph Alessi) and the woman who runs the station's cafeteria, Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin); and Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin), the platform candy vendor, and Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson) the waitress. The down-to-earth courtship of the other two couples is an unsentimental, sometimes bawdy contrast to the very properly improper Laura and Alec.
Much of the action takes place in the train station, although there are several excursions to the sea and one breathtaking boat ride on both stage and screen. The audience hears the train coming and can almost feel the vibrations as the actors tremble and stumble onstage. A toy train makes a delightful appearance as it stops in the middle of the cafeteria just when the actors are boarding.
The music is sometimes represented as a film score (especially when the original film's Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 is heard), at other times as a vaudevillian entertainment, and most often as music hall numbers. It moves in and out of the action much like a Greek chorus. A good deal of the music incorporates familiar Coward songs. But Stu Barker's original music is fluidly integrated with Coward's. McLaughlin's interpretation of Coward's "I Am No Good at Love" is worthy of the great Dietrich, and the sequel "I Am Good at Love" manages to top the seemingly unsurpassable.
If Rice's staging is magnificent, the performances of the cast are no less stellar. Each of the couples has its own characteristics: the awkward Beryl and the shy Stanley, the aggressive Albert and the supercilious Meryl. Despite all the nonsense going on around them, Yelland and Sturrock are the perfect romantic couple. Their furtive and futile love is not to be taken lightly. It's impossible not to feel their pain.
This Brief Encounter may not be a romantic tearjerker like the film, but it will leave more than a few people wondering why laughter can feel so sad.