Anthony Walker-Cook discuss Brief Encounter with Beverly Rudd and Isabel Pollen, who respectively play Beryl and Laura in the show. Though the interviews were separate, both actors talk about their experiences, the mix of tones to be found in the piece and the reasons for the play’s enduring legacy.
Beverly has been a part of the production during the UK tour and previously when it went to America – she confesses it is the first show she’s come back to. Why? ‘Everything works through: the comedy and tragedy perfectly cut through the drama, which I really love about Emma’s work and this piece. Because this show has continued over so many years it has really changed with different performers and with the removal of the interval the show feels much tighter. Things have been cut and changed. I just think it’s a brilliant piece of theatre that I’m really proud to be a part of.’ Joining more recently, Isabel comments, ‘Emma is very much about everybody being as important as each other. There’s never a doubt that we match and we all need each other to be thinking as a team.’
Though audiences may be familiar with the play’s narrative from the 1945 film Brief Encounter, the play itself is based on Noël Coward’s Still Life (1935). For Isabel, working with a story that has been popular so for long has been a source of inspiration: ‘It’s wonderful walking into a piece that has a fanbase before you’ve started. Most people love it. The magic of this production is that it is a different experience to film. There is film in it but it’s not the film. It’s based on Noël Coward’s original play, and as such you get a stronger sense of the original piece.’ Such sentiments are shared by Beverly: ‘I haven’t known one person to come away from this feeling like they haven’t loved the show more than the film. Everybody seems to warm to it even if they’re a massive fan; for me it’s exciting if I know they’re a fan since I know they’re going to get something similar but different.’
Certainly, however, Brief Encounter is not just for the older generations. Audiences to the show have been of varying ages, often including groups of school children. This has, both tell me, a practical reason: Kneehigh, the production company, is on both GCSE and A-Level Drama syllabi. But there’s more to the broad applicability of the show than mere academic drudgery, as Isabel rightly explains: ‘I guess the attraction is that it is clear from the beginning it’s not just a theatre piece. It’s in a cinema for a start, it has live music and film and I think it’s timeless. I’ve never know a piece to target such a broad spectrum: everybody knows what it’s like to being in love, which can happen from age eight to eighty, and beyond.’ The most rewarding aspect, Beverly tells, is when students bring their families having seen the show once before.
Depicting a story of impossible love, Brief Encounter follows the story of Alec and Laura as they embark on a clandestine affair. Is it difficult getting into the social mindset of the 1940s? Isabel finds a similarity between then and now, acknowledging the time-period acts as a double-edged sword that draws audiences into the setting: ‘I believe that even though we’re quick to dismiss the shame of an affair, those feelings are exactly the same. Yes, we’re more used to seeing it and it’s in our face more than we’d perhaps want, especially with things like Love Island, which provides a bizarre and extreme opposite end of the spectrum. Anyone in that situation – married and with children and continuing in a provincial area with a village mentality – would have a similar level of shame. Yes, comparatively the stakes were much more different since people were not exposed to that happening, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t going on. They just didn’t share it.’ Beverly’s Beryl, by contrast, is an image of innocence, which the actress enjoys. We liken Stanley to being Beryl mobile phone, something that she is completely infatuated with: ‘Isn’t that lovely? It’s so romantic, as the whole play is. It’s an important piece for people to realise there’s more to life; I feel we’re in a generation where we’ll all miss so much because we’re all looking at our phones.’ We both lament there aren’t more Beryls nowadays.
Laura and Beryl are very different characters: the former is a willing participant in an affair that cannot continue, where the latter represents the innocence of young love. Chatting with Beverly about Beryl, her love for the character shines through as we discuss her importance to the show: ‘There are so many different types of love and everyone is swept up in it in different ways but she is pure innocence. She is not worried about being hurt, she just wants to spend time with Stanley. That’s why she’s there. In all the dark café scenes you have Laura and Alec arguing and Beryl’s there but so different. It’s interesting watching people respond to a situation they know nothing about. It’s perfect storytelling.’ When asked what Beryl’s ideal date would be with Stanley, Beverly’s response is perfect: ‘She’d love to go ballroom dancing, but she’d be rubbish at it. She’d have a brilliant time but I can’t imagine she’s good at much and she’s easily distracted. I imagine Stanley taking her to the big hall and dancing her around the room. It’d be so romantic.’
What would Beryl make of Laura and Alec’s affair? Beverly responds: ‘I think she’s shocked by it but she’d probably find it quite funny: she is naughty and a bit daft and cheeky. It would be a big deal and she would look at them differently. At the end of the play I try to get across that Beryl’s priorities are so different to Laura’s: I want to go and sit on a bridge with Stanley and theirs is this intense thing. That’s so simple in the contrast but in that situation it’s massively important.’ Equally, how does Isabel feel about Laura by the end? Isabel answers, ‘I think she goes home and reality bites like it’s never bitten before – she realises this is her lot and she has been definitively changed by the experience, which is why the soundscape of the piece is a gift: it is like a wave crashing every time the meet since they are so incompatible. The final scene is an acceptance of how the life she had a taste of is not going to happen and she must somehow make the best of what she has. There’s no Hollywood ending, but again that’s very real and a real experience of the time.’
Why might Laura have been tempted to enter into the affair in the first place? ‘I don’t think you can say there’s a moment. I do think there’s an immediate chemistry and what’s fascinating is that their relationship is a series of interruptions, mostly by a train or a person. They, through coincidence, in terms of their meetings of fate, depending on how much of a romantic you are, fall for each other because they are in a state where they’re not unhappy in their marriages but they’re also not fulfilled. There’s the potential for both to be surprised by this other person. Because they keep meeting, and because they’re brave enough to keep meeting, they fall in love.’ Isabel finds a clear parallel between the play and Coward’s own life: ‘For me it’s clear Noël Coward is writing about his experience of being gay. It’s forbidden love and it’s painful to watch as it gets further. That’s another arena of life that we are all experiencing: a much freer and more liberal existence, whereas then there was an absolutely different outlook on Coward’s sexuality. The play is a wonderful opportunity to tell of his experiences. That’s why it’s so powerful, because it’s based on truth, and that was apparent to me the first time I read it.’ Certainly, the suggestion of the relationship being a series of interruptions is an apt and incisive one, and by the end we agree you’re willing the pair not to be interrupted. ‘Exactly, I know, and it’s genius since it’s very real. It’s also dramatically brilliant because they don’t get to say goodbye.’
As both interviews come to an end I ask both actresses to consider what questions the play raises for both of them. Again, the answers are different but insightful and agree audiences will leave the play with questions themselves. As Isabel suggests, ‘It’s asking questions all the time. I think the main question is what time are we in and where we are now?’ Beverly picks up on a point made earlier by Isabel: ‘It’ll make people think about their relationships. People think nowadays that if you have affairs it’s easier: there is a sense of that but I still think people think how Laura and Alec feel: if they are going to end their relationships then they go through all of that emotion. It just happens more often now and people are more willing to sacrifice what they’ve got.’
Why should audiences come to see Brief Encounter before it closes on the 22nd July? First Isabel: ‘It’s only ninety minutes long and, as we discussed, is a piece that takes us in every direction. There’s every single thing in there – laughter, suspense, joy and magic – and it ticks every box unlike anything I’ve worked on before.’ Beverly answers, ‘Because it’s an unexpected treat that surprises and everybody can relate to it and can link into one of the storylines. It’s clever storytelling and different to what you normally watch. Who doesn’t love romance? It’s clever storytelling, the cutting over of the tragedy with the comedy, and moments cut through the tension, which keeps the audience and us on our toes. And that’s really important for theatre. We’ve gone down the route of having a big name and doing a straight play, and for me that’s not enough.’
When asked to summarise the show in one word, both ladies provided two separate and interesting choices. Isobel accounts, ‘Truth. Because it’s the story where everybody gets to tell the truth and that’s what makes it so romantic and heart-breaking with love, comedy, joy and mistakes.’ Beverly, by contrast, offers ‘Surprising – I don’t think it’s what people think it will be.’ Certainly, Brief Encounter defies expectations and definition, and an obvious truth is that you should see it before it finishes.
You can watch Brief Encounter at the Cinema Royal Haymarket until the 22nd July. Many thanks to both Beverly Rudd and Isabel Pollen for their time and Amanda Malpass PR for organising.
Feature photograph: Steve Tanner.