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Empire Cinema Haymarket, London

“I’ve always loved getting lost in the dark, and the cinema is one of the best places to do it.” Emma Rice’s joy of being enveloped in a theatrical world is certainly achieved in her musical adaptation of Noël Coward’s well-loved film, Brief Encounter. Performed onstage at the Empire Cinema Haymarket, Kneehigh’s production galvanises the charm of the original cinematic treasure.

Initially written as a play entitled Still Life, Coward’s haunting love story has a history of moving fluidly between stage and screen. Rice’s adaptation inventively incorporates recorded footage that coalesces with reality. Characters observe, interact with, and even physically pass through the film screen from one imagined world to another. In this story of a painfully impossible and taboo love affair between Laura and Alec, two married people in 1930s Britain, Laura’s stepping from the onstage scene with her forbidden lover into her onscreen living room, through which her husband is calling her, represents the agonising pull of conventional life that tears the lovers apart.

The fluid movement of characters from auditorium to stage, to screen produces an immersive performance that heightens Coward’s empathetic writing. The audience experiences the characters’ constant efforts to move freely beyond the constraints of their passions, allegorised by Laura’s desire to swim, displayed onscreen by the motif of crashing waves. This liberating swimming motion climaxes as reeling joy when the two lovers, in the height of their affair, swing mid-air, clutching chandeliers entwined with white roses. This moment of seemingly romantic rapture is jarred by the uneasy and clumsy swaying of the suspended lovers towards and away from each other, foreshadowing their ultimate tragic divergence.

Physical theatre in this production is executed meticulously and with purpose. Every movement is choreographed like clockwork. Actors effortlessly throw and catch props and each other and transitions between scenes are smooth and interweaved within the narrative. The audience cannot help but be transported by the subtle, steady accumulation of ‘accidental outings’ of the brief encounter.

The combination of physical theatre with music and sound effects (effectively demonstrated by the rattling blast of a passing train and the company’s ensuing shuddering), enhances the joy of becoming ‘lost in the dark’ of an immersive performance. Coward’s own songs are interspersed throughout the performance, punctuating the plot and supplementing the expression of sentiments where words alone perhaps would not suffice. Supporting actor Jos Slovick exquisitely accompanies and captures the painful emotion of the dialogue between the two protagonists through song.

The innovative involvement of multimedia, puppets and even the offering of real sticky buns to the audience does not detract however from naturalistic and spontaneous-seeming interactions between characters. These glimpses of real human happiness and suffering reinforce the production’s grasp of the profundity of Coward’s original masterpiece.

The cast all give stellar performances – leads Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon ooze tender passions, whilst supporting actors Jos Slovick, Beverly Rudd, Lucy Thackeray and Dean Nolan capture the humour of the piece terrifically. This innovative return to romance is not to be missed.

  • Drama
  • Written and Directed by Emma Rice adapted from Noël Coward’s Script for the 1945 Film
  • Cast includes: Peter Dukes, Katrina Kleve, Dean Nolan, Isabel Pollen, Beverly Rudd, Jos Slovick, Jim Sturgeon, Lucy Thackeray, Pat Moran, Seamus Carey.
  • Empire Cinema Haymarket, London

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