Brief Encounter at the Cinema Royal Haymarket: a stylish retelling that’s impossible not to fall in love with
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews this blast-from-the-past musical, examining the perfect blend of tone, design and acting in this acerbic production.
The joy of seeing Brief Encounter at the Cinema Royal Haymarket begins the second you step into the foyer when you’re greeted by a troupe of singers performing various classic songs. As the beginning of the show approaches, the audience saunters into the auditorium where they are comically directed to their seats by people dressed in smart uniforms that pass for either ushers or platform attendants. “I’m helping this madam to her seat” one convivially cries, flashing his redundant torch up and down the aisle that’s lit by the house lights. It’s easy to miss Laura Jesson (Isabel Pollen) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon) sitting in the very centre of the front row: they look like any couple on a regular date. But as the lights dim, a projection on the screen counts down to the beginning of the show and a warm light focuses our attention on the central couple. So begins what is possibly the most charming show on the West End stage at this very moment.
Our expectations, however, are quickly dashed: Laura runs up the stairs declaring that their love cannot happen. Directed by Emma Rice, the entire cast pitch each scene at the right tone and tempo, pulling audiences through this stylish tale of love and loss. Taken from Noël Coward’s Still Life (1936), now famous by the 1945 film of the same name, Brief Encounter tells the tale of forbidden love between the aforementioned Laura and Alec due to one simple reason: both are married. Yet after an off-chance meeting in the café at the Milford Junction train station the two begin an affair that feels, by today’s standards, almost placid. The trips to the cinema, lunches out and a haphazard boat ride do not seem to a modern sensibility such a cause for concern, yet the beauty of this production is that we truly believe Laura’s doubts. A brief look at her home life with Fred Jesson (Dean Nolan), her crossword-completing husband whose trick with a paper bag is one any gentleman of that era knew, reveals the need for something more, yet social restrictions stop her from ever achieving the desires of her heart.
Paying homage to the success of the original film, Neil Murray’s design combines set pieces with black and white recordings projected onto a cinema screen. Behind is an open realisation of the train station that pliably also becomes the Jesson’s family home and a river for the aforementioned boat scene, but the setting is primarily the station café. With the skeleton of iron steps and a bridge that allows characters to dramatically run across and change platform, characters pick up some of the loose coal on stage and watch as a projected train leaves the station on a screen behind. But a setting is nothing without characters, and at the helm of this veritable institution is Myrtle (Lucy Thackeray), the Barbara Windsor of train-station cafes. Thackeray brings a no-nonsense strength to the role, which contrasts beautifully with the comic simplicity of Beverly Rudd’s Beryl. Whether it be falling in love with Jos Slovick’s Stanley, riding her scooter or appearing as a Scottish waitress asking the clandestine couple if they want anything to drink, Rudd’s comedic timing offers a brief relief to the high-volume tone of the love affair. As her lover, Slovick offers delicate moments of musical interlude throughout.
Murray’s set deserves praise for its versatility and effectiveness, but the ensemble of Brief Encounter uses props to brilliant and often comedic effect. During their boat ride, a single branch of cherry blossom is held out to capture Alec’s dubious rowing skills as he accidentally takes the pair into the bushes. As a train leaves the station, Rudd runs along the stage with a fire extinguisher to mimic smoke on the platform, playing with the clichéd image of embracing lovers amidst the vapours of a pre-electric train system. The best, however, is the pulling of a toy train across the stage as Alec is leaves the station. Sturgeon jumps across the train and continually waves to Laura, a simple, comic and effective way of capturing the transient spirit of the setting.
Yet this is not the only way in which the show manages to realise the magic of the train-station setting and its potential for love: as Alec leaves he steps through a projector screen on which he is now shown to be on the train. Again, it’s a simple technique, but one that completely endears audiences to the spectacle in front of them.
One of the boons of Brief Encounter is its ability to mix comedy with a heightened mood. Amidst a story of forbidden love where so much is left, at best, implied and, at worst, non-existent, these slight moments offer a brilliant contrast to the drama and pathos of the narrative. A highlight of the show must be Thackeray’s dance with Nolan as Albert Godby. With cartwheels, jumping holds and enough ‘kiss me eyes’ to melt the arctic, this bodily outpouring of lust poses a wonderful answer to the frustrated lovers behind the curtain.
Brief Encounter is full of slight moments of heightened drama, and Pollen and Sturgeon lead this commendable cast through an evening of wonderful songs (and dance). Clearly the creative team and ensemble are all attuned to the atmosphere of both the original story and the time in which it was made. Under this context, the dialogue of Brief Encounter may seem cliché, yet within seconds audiences warm to the charm and brilliance of this production. With swinging chandeliers and swelling music that leads to a kiss expressing the strong feelings of the characters, the audience and the piece itself, Alec asks Laura “Tell me it’s the same with you, that you’ve fallen in love too.” Reader, I think I might have.
Brief Encounter is at the Cinema Royal Haymarket until the 22nd July, 2018.
Feature photograph: Steve Tanner.