Brief Encounter Still Lives Run Deep
By Isa Goldberg
A fleeting romance – never consummated yet all consuming – is the subject of “Brief Encounter,” David Lean’s classic 1945 movie based on the Noel Coward play, “Still Life.” While the movie romance was recounted in somber tones of gray with meager scenic elements, and the barest touch of action, the story rolls into place faster than a roller coaster. As re-imagined, and told now by London’s Kneehigh Theatre, one can only hope that love like that will surely come their way.
Played against a string of popular songs beginning with “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” the movie’s grim mise-en-scene is replaced here by a buoyant display of physical comedy. An on-stage band, and shocks of color – blue scooter, red hair band, vase of country flowers – draw our attention to the stage. That is, when we’re not diverted by the actors popping in and out of the audience as if they were part of the matinee crowd at the Palladium, one of the movie’s principal locations. As adapted and directed by Emma Rice, the strategy is clear: to find whatever it takes to shake us from ennui, just the way love, especially forbidden love, wakes us form the security of our quotidian lives.
In one particularly breathtaking moment, the romantic couple gets sucked into a comic remake of the old movie, only to be swept back onto the stage. The Technicolor acrobatics are supported by loose-limbed choreography as well as additional footage that alternates between an underwater swimmer and crashing waves. The latter arrive with a crescendo reflecting the intensity of love, or ebb as with spent emotions. With so much going on in the design and staging, romance hardly gets the time to breathe. And so the tension grows.
Scenes from Laura’s frustrating family life, portrayed on stage and in film, also serve the central story. Her needy children, portrayed by life-size puppets, and her self-referential husband create the background for her conflicted relationship. Joseph Alessi, in a masterful double play, portrays Laura’s husband as well as the cockney train station employee who flirts with the cafe manager, a bawdy Annette McLaughlin. Along with Gabriel Ebert as the honky-tonk ukulele player and his belle, the waitress on the scooter played by Dorothy Atkinson, the two couples create a rowdy contrast to Laura and Alec’s gentle love.
Portrayed as an iconic romantic object, Hannah Yelland’s Laura sports the quivering voice, tightly wound blonde locks and refined gestures that bring to mind an old movie heroine. In fact, Lean narrated the movie from Laura’s point of view through a flashback. That the movie developed inside her psyche was a radical approach for the time. Here Trevor Howard’s memorable role is played by Tristan Sturrock. Clearly, a more self-actualized character that Laura, Sturrock’s shaggy dog good looks and easy going manner are a contrast to Laura’s predicament, as she remains stuck in the role of middle class housewife.
In the play’s rousing finale, Rice brings back the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 which opens the movie and plays throughout it. At last, Laura liberates herself by taking up her treasured past time; wildly pounding on the piano keys, she plays Rachmaninoff. Arriving Deus ex Machina, the audience feels like they’ve waited all night for it to come. “Brief Encounter” is a contagious evening of theater.
“Brief Encounter” is at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street) through December 5th. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. For tickets call Roundabout Ticket Services at 212-719-1300, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org or go to the box office (227 West 42nd St