Broadway Reviews

Noel Coward's
Brief Encounter

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 28, 2010

Noel Coward's Brief Encounter Adapted from the play Still Life and the screenplay of Brief Encounter, both by Noel Coward. Adapted and directed by Emma Rice. Set & costume design by Neil Murray. Lighting design by Malcolm Rippeth. Sound design by Simon Baker. Projection design by Jon Driscoll & Gemma Carrington. Original music by Stu Barker. Cast: Joseph Alessi, Dorothy Atkinson, Damon Daunno, Gabriel Ebert, Edward Jay, Annette McLaughlin, Adam Pleeth, Tristan Sturrock, Hannah Yelland.
Theatre: Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Schedule: Tues 8 pm, Wed 2 pm, Wed 8 pm, Th 8 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm, Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm.
Limited engagement through December 5.
Ticket prices: $37 - $127
Tickets: www.roundabouttheatre.org

Brief Encounter
Tristan Sturrock and Hanna Yelland.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Aside from the importance of trains to their plots, one is hard pressed to find many substantial similarities between the films of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter. So why is it that their stage versions, the former continuing its long run Off-Broadway at New World Stages and the latter having just opened at Studio 54, are all but indistinguishable in style, tone, and disregard for their source material?

For this production of the U.K.-based Kneehigh Theatre, which briefly stopped at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn late last year, adapter-director Emma Rice has stripped David Lean’s 1945 film, itself an expansion of Coward’s own one-act play Still Life from his Tonight at 8:30 anthology, of all the seriousness, depth, and psychological anguish that one would think made it worth adapting in the first place. Worse, she's replaced them with a colorful, smirking theatricality that not only has nothing to do with the challenges its characters face, but actually harms Coward's story by upending the only rules under which it can operate.

Rice has retained Coward's basic story, about a woman named Laura and a doctor named Alec who meet at a train station, gradually fall in love, and carry out a rewarding romance that’s doomed from its inception because they’re both happily (if exhaustedly) married to other people. The film and original play derive their dramatic heft from the societal oppressiveness under which they conduct their affair, its tragic and yet ultimately redemptive undertones arising because we’re able to see how bright flashes of hope within pervasive darkness can inspire the soul to survive in undue circumstances.

Most of this has been jettisoned in Rice's production. Substituting for Alec and Laura's emotional claustrophobia is a concept of the story unfolding as if at a post-WWII London cinema. In addition to a parade of robotically grinning ushers, she provide a pre-show concert of classic Coward tunes, this lets Alec and Laura "emerge" from a pair of ostensible lovers in the audience (played by Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland), who then enter the movie screen and begin acting out their own version of the story.

This is perhaps supposed to be involving, but only heightens the new two-dimensionality Rice has forced on the central liaison. What makes less sense still is why, then, there are so many injections of cutesy theatricality that strain to define Alec and Laura through the lens of a Technicolor musical - something completely ill-suited to either Coward's understated original or Rice's rethinking. The most they achieve is to inspire uncomfortable new questions no audience member should be forced to ask.

Brief Encounter
Tristan Sturrock and Hanna Yelland.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Why, for example, must Alec and Laura's fateful boat ride be punctuated by other actors hitting them with tree branches or throwing water on them? Why, as the pair shares their first kiss, must a performer traverse the stage with a newspaper on a stick, hit Alec in the back of the leg with it, and draw roars of laughs at what should be the narrative's most tender moment? Why is the evening's comic centerpiece a pair of ancient women with dog puppets that bark and yap? Why are Laura's children bunraku puppets? And why do Alec and Laura swing above the stage on chandeliers during a musical interlude just when their relationship is most in need of unadorned exploration?

Such heaping incongruities prevent Rice from mining any genuine feelings from a property that has previously burst with them. The stage version of The 39 Steps got away with its transformation of the original into this same kind of fluff-filled lark because its film was plot-heavy rather than character-heavy, and laden with an earnestness it couldn’t always justify. Brief Encounter, however, suffered from no such problem, its pleasure and pain recognizable to anyone who's been in a relationship that didn't work out. Rice never explains through her work why that's worth mocking for 90 minutes straight, and that makes her show — however stuffed with entertainment it may be — feel profoundly empty.

One cannot legitimately blame the designers (Neil Murray did the costumes and industrial-spare sets, Malcolm Rippeth the lighting) or the actors for failing to fashion a consistent, human atmosphere when gridlocked within such a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam of conflicting ideas. I suppose that Sturrock and Yelland do their best, though Alec and Laura still come across as affected and stiff rather than supple and stifled, neither offering a significant hint of what either gets from the other. Both have moments of serene success, but they're disconnected, as if from different reels of a film that are being shown out of order.

More difficult still are the supporting cast members. The pint-sized Dorothy Atkinson and the tall and lanky Gabriel Ebert, as a pair of cafe hangers-on whose own union fares considerably better than Alec and Laura's, are on hand to sing the majority of the in-show musical numbers. The energy and gregariousness they emit would make them an ideal Frank and Ellie in a revival of Show Boat, but what does that have to do with anything else here? Annette McLaughlin and Joseph Alessi are as charming as they are overused as the café owner and her puppy-dog-guard-dog policeman friend, roles in the movie that were vital to establishing the baseline world that threatened Alec and Laura’s love, but here seem at best diversionary.

From beginning to end, that's this production's modus operandi: twist what used to make sense into gaudy, jokey unrecognizability. The only part of the evening that’s an unqualified success is its “encore,” a post-show sing-along that takes place in the back of the auditorium. Those singing ushers rush there following the curtain calls, taking up banjos, basses, and even a pair of spoons to plow through the modern American pop songbook with a bewitching gusto that’s far more riveting than the gussied-up and flattened down anti-love story you've just witnessed. No, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Brief Encounter. At least, unlike the rest of Rice’s production, it never pretends it does.


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