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Brief Encounter

England's Kneehigh company brilliantly transforms Noel Coward's tearjerker into a one-of-a-kind musical entertainment. logo
Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland
in Brief Encounter
(© Joan Marcus)
In 1945, master imp and conscientious keeper-of-British-values Noel Coward adapted his one-act Still Life into Brief Encounter, the seminal stiff-upper-lip-tearjerker film now beloved by millions. Coward's work has now been reinvented once again as Brief Encounter, which England's Kneehigh company is presenting for the second time in New York, this time on Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54 space.

Under adaptor/director Emma Rice's tongue-in-cheek yet straight-backed direction, the company simultaneously and seamlessly mock the source material devilishly, yet also honor it wholeheartedly. The result is not only a bravura statement on the giddy, difficult nature of love and loyalty, but a true one-of-a-kind entertainment -- which uses mixed media that occasionally allows the actors on stage to walk through a screen only to reappear bigger-than-life in filmed scenes, and more than enough Coward songs to turn the piece into an altogether different kind of musical comedy.

Throughout the work -- which doesn't really require prior knowledge of the play or the celebrated Trevor Howard-Celia Johnson film for enjoyment -- Hannah Yelland 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 impassioned romantic interludes. The two of them remain stalwart 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 mural.

However, around the reluctantly philandering couple, actors playing other characters from the beloved film spoof its now-dated behavior, including hip-swiveling, shoulder-swaggering Annette McLaughlin as Betty Grable-coiffed tea-room hostess Myrtle, knock-kneed Dorothy Atkinson as tea-assistant Beryl (who performs a hilarious version of Coward's "Mad About the Boy"), and Joseph Alessi prominently commanding several wildly dissimilar roles.

Indeed, the unexpected musical is so start-to-finish awash in song that members of the nine-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 do so even as patrons exit. The ditties culled from the vast Coward catalogue comment on the sometimes giddy, sometimes earnest turns of events, and also include a truly touching version of "Go Slow, Johnny," sung by a group alongside the increasingly enamored Laura and Eric, and "A Room With a View," which Sturrock intones as love-struck but perplexed Alec. There's even a late interlude when Laura goes to a piano and bangs out some of Rachmaninoff's tear-jerking, solar-plexus-gripping "Piano Concerto No. 2," so inextricably a part of the swoony flick.

Moreover, there's so much skittering about as the enterprise smoothly progresses from scene to scene and song to song and instrument to instrument that the cast is constantly changing outfits. The wardrobe has been carefully put together by set and costume designer Neil Murray with a penchant for 1940s verisimilitude as well as fantasy, transporting audiences back in time and making some members perhaps eager to stay there.

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