Brief Encounter

Reviewer's Rating

The Royal Exchange, Manchester is currently offering a delightful alternative to the usual Christmas fare in the form of a revival of Emma Rice’s musical adaptation of Noel Coward’s ‘Brief Encounter.’ This escape into a world of expressionist 1940s romance is perfectly matched to this unique modular theatre-in-the-round, unexpectedly parachuted into the cavernous grandeur of Manchester’s former cotton exchange.

Rice had the great idea of going back beyond the famous film of ‘Brief Encounter’ to the play that triggered it, and then opening it out once more with songs from Coward’s own extensive jazz-inflected catalogue. This approach speaks naturally to the back and forth in the original between pinched, rationed realities and fantasy projection. Also it draws us into the other couples and relationships across age and class once the songs are democratically distributed across the characters. The show is excellently structured as a result, with a refreshingly short first half of brisk exposition and a longer second that then reaps its well earned dividends.

Setting is all here, just as in the film. Designer Rose Revitt and Sound Designer Russell Ditchfield have done a great job in bringing wartime Milford Junction to life, assisted by the setting in the round which enables the rush and bustle of arrivals and departures from multiple entrances. We experience the dark wood interior of the tearoom, the chundering and roar and whistles of passing trains, the billowing smoke and steam with an ironwork canopy and clock looming over a delightfully intricate parquet floor. This unexpectedly segues at the start of the second half into a boating scene with magnolias and cherry blossom – as illustrated above.

At the anguished centre of the action Hannah Azuonye and Baker Mukasa capture perfectly the tense formality of Alec and Laura’s first meetings before digging deep into their ultimately frustrated romance which runs up against the buffers of cold middle-class morality. They also move beautifully together during the several choreographed sections of the second half that release the full jazzy improvisational potential of Coward’s melodies.

But the revelations in this production are across the other, and in no way lesser, relationships, here played for real as much as for laughs. As Myrtle and Albert, tearoom manager and ticket collector, Christina Modestou and Richard Glaves are entirely credible, rounded characters. It is a tribute to their success that when they finally get together the audience bursts into applause with a sentimental sigh. It is not all tragedy over the rock buns. Similarly, there is an affecting romance for the younger people, Stanley and Beryl, played with skill by Georgia Frost and Ida Regan, transitioning from gawkiness to grace through the medium of some of Coward’s most compelling music, especially ‘Mad about the Boy.’

The success of the show is deeply embedded in the music where director Sarah Frankcom has rightly placed the four-person jazz combo on stage behind the tearoom counter. Music director and supervisor Matthew Malone plays a key role here in directing a detailed underscore as much as the prepared numbers. Punctuating chords and a sustained cello note are as important as improvisation in setting and changing tone and mood. That said, when the band is let off its leash, with all seven cast members taking to the dance floor, we experience some wonderful moments of invention – I had no idea that a polite waltz such ‘I’ll Follow my Secret Heart’ could yield such a passionate Latin transformation.

Just as in the original, out of the most unlikely and constrained situations the heart can find its means to flourish. Surely the message we need at this time, if not in all times.