Tristan Sturrock and Naomi Frederick
in Brief Encounter
(© Alastair Muir)
Tristan Sturrock and Naomi Frederick
in Brief Encounter
(© Alastair Muir)
There was a time not really that long ago when the English were stereotyped as emotionally repressed. There was no better or more successful example than the 1945 box office hit, Brief Encounter, adapted by Noel Coward from his one-act Still Life, in which Celia Johnson as suburban housewife Laura Jesson and Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey meet over tea in a train station café, fall in love during a series of stolen Thursday afternoons, and eventually agree that the only right thing they can do is part forevermore. Now the playfully experimental Kneehigh company proves how much -- and how little -- their countrymen (and women) have changed in an excellent stage adaptation of Brief Encounter, now at London's Cinema Haymarket multiplex, the same place where the David Lean movie premiered.

Kneehigh -- which is currently being represented in New York by their production of Rapunzel -- has deconstructed and reconstructed the classic film as a marvelous piece of post-modern nostalgia, using mixed media that occasionally allows the actors on stage to walk through a screen only to reappear bigger-than-life in filmed scenes (by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington). More surprisingly, adaptor-director Emma Rice adds enough Coward songs to turn her piece into a new and altogether different kind of musical comedy. Into the bargain, she and her skilled colleagues also pay Coward quite a tribute as a lasting cultural icon.

Throughout the work -- which doesn't really require knowledge of the film for enjoyment -- Naomi Frederick as Laura and Tristan Sturrock as Alec mostly play it straight as she leaves her husband and children home while he awaits her and their increasingly intense romantic interludes. The two of them remain earnest even during recurring moments when they raise their arms and bend to the side as if blown into ecstasy by Simon Baker's sound-designed winds. Indeed, Laura and Alec are remarkably stoic in a sequence where they hold onto separate rising chandeliers as if they've been suddenly transported into a Marc Chagall painting.

Around the reluctantly philandering couple, actors playing other characters from the beloved film spoof its now-dated behavior, including Tamzin Griffin as Betty Grable-coiffed tea-room hostess Myrtle and beak-nosed, knock-kneed Amanda Lawrence as tea-assistant Beryl. (Lawrence gets to don an odd costume complete with balloons she shapes into dogs while singing Coward's hilarious "Alice Is At It Again.") The quick-changing Lawrence also plays the chatty friend of Laura's who interrupts the lovebirds as his train in pulling into the station amid a huge cloud of smoke. The result of her unwanted visit is simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious.

This unexpected musical is so start-to-finish awash in song that members of the 10-person cast are already dressed as singing 1940's ushers when patrons arrive, and keep up their chirping and instrument-playing on stage throughout the work. And don't you know that in a non-straight-forward moment, Frederick goes to a piano and bangs out some of that tear-jerking, solar-plexus-gripping Rachmaninoff piece well-known to viewers of the film. The curtain-call encore of Coward's "A Room With a View" is particularly affecting, as it contains that melancholy question about enduring love: "Or will it ever come true?"

Just like Coward, Kneehigh is making its own bravura statements on the giddy and unpredictable nature of love -- as well on what constitutes out-and-out genuine entertainment.