In late 1930s Britain, Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon) meet in a railroad station tearoom. They're each married to other people, but they fall for each other regardless, meeting every Thursday. They're not the only ones in that tearoom experiencing romance, either. Tearoom assistant Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson) and snack vendor Stanley (Damon Daunno) have a lively flirtation going, while tearoom owner Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin) is being gruffly courted by railway employee Albert (Joe Alessi). As their passion grows, Laura and Alec think about running away together, but real life keeps getting in the way of their dream.
Yelland is expert at portraying both the proper emotional reserve of a respectable married woman of the era and also the emotional intensity of somebody who desperately wants someone she knows she can't have. Sturgeon is good but gets less opportunity to display big emotional moments, because the idea of romantic masculinity at that time was much more about endlessly being polite and ending every sentence with "darling." Atkinson is very funny in multiple roles, her highlight being a rendition of "Mad About the Boy," as she embraces a stand-up bass with loving abandon. Daunno is cheekily amusing as Stanley, but his main contribution is singing several numbers, the best of which is a lovely, swooning performance of "Go Slow, Johnny." McLaughlin is brashly comic as the seemingly tough Myrtle, and Alessi is roughly charming as the undeterred Albert.
As great as the cast and the original play are, it's Emma Rice's adaptation and direction that are the real stars. Rice combined Coward's one-act Still Life with his screenplay for the 1945 film, adding in several Coward songs as well, which are the perfect counterpoint or background to the action. Combining these elements turns a one-act into a full and satisfying play, which is achievement enough, but her direction turns the show from a respectful revival into a playful and lyrical spectacle.
Rice's use of live musicians performing onstage and doing sound effects throughout the play sets a jovial tone, which lightens some of the piece's inherent heaviness. Her staging is light and clever, from a mock tearoom ballet to the ensemble shaking furiously as a train goes by. Projection and film designers Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington's work is effective and often beautiful, and Rice uses it brilliantly. Examples of this include a sequence where the blissful lovers swing from chandeliers with a starry sky behind them, sparkly confetti raining down, to a perfectly judged transition between a passionate kiss and Laura later sitting at home in stifling domesticity. Perhaps the most impressive moment occurs at the end, when Laura looks down from Neil Murray's handsome railway station set and a long piece of fabric is pulled suddenly across the stage, a train then projected on it as she forlornly watches it go.
Brief Encounter is an accomplished and entertaining production, and is a definite must-see.
Noël Coward's Brief Encounter runs at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through March 23. For tickets and information, see www.thewallis.org. For information on the Kneehigh tour, see www.kneehigh.co.uk/show/brief-encounter.php.
Kneehigh Theatre presents Noël Coward's Brief Encounter, adapted and directed by Emma Rice. Production Manager Dominic Fraser; Scenic Designer Neil Murray; Lighting Designer Malcolm Rippeth; Projection & Film Designers Jon Driscoll & Gemma Carrington; Sound Designer Simon Baker.