theatre review: brief encounter
Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter is Noël Coward on Noël Coward on Noël Coward. The production combines the texts of his 1945 film Brief Encounter with the 1936 play Still Life on which it was based, interspersed throughout with songs by Coward. First performed by the Cornish company in 2008, Brief Encounter has played in the West End and on Broadway, and is now kicking off its Australian tour at the State Theatre, Adelaide. Two Adelaide actresses (Michelle Nightingale and Kate Cheel) join the ensemble for this tour.
Brief Encounter depicts a love story in 1940s Britain. Laura (Nightingale) meets doctor Alec (Jim Sturgeon) in a train station tea room, where he removes a speck of coal dust from her eye. Realising they have a connection, they begin a friendship which develops into love. However, both are married with children. Two other love stories are explored in the tea room, with manager Myrtle engaging in a fiery relationship with station attendant Albert, while Myrtle’s young assistants Beryl and Stanley also grow close.
Director Emma Rice has created a production which reads like post-modernism for beginners. Walking into the auditorium, you are greeted by the performers in usher costumes performing songs like ‘Honeysuckle Rose’. When the play begins, Laura and Alec seat themselves in the front row of the audience, watching a film which Laura soon steps into. Projections are used throughout, leaves falling and a girl swimming on the back wall of the stage. Projections are also used to create the trains that run through the station, as is a smoke machine and a miniature train toy. Puppets are used for both Laura’s children and a pair of fluffy dogs. These elements are what make the production interesting, elevating it from a simple mix of love stories to a beautiful and stimulating story.
As Myrtle and Albert, Annette McLaughlin and Joe Alessi are passionate and boisterous. Together they have many moments, such as a song-and-tango number, which steal attention away from the main couple’s British restraint. Nightingale and Sturgeon are sweet together; their struggle with their middle class values depicted honestly and with heart. Cheel and Damon Daunno provide the youthful energy required by Beryl and Stanley, sharing an entertaining song together and offsetting the hopelessness of Laura and Alec’s own love story.
There are some faults. As the doomed relationship peaks, Nightingale and Sturgeon perform a stilted dance together before she starts literally swinging from a chandelier; the dance meant to show their happiness instead looking clumsy. After the curtain call another banner drops down but didn’t unfurl at the performance I saw. Actors are continually washed away as crashing waves are projected onto the stage, raising their arms and leaning to mimic the movement of the water; this action starts out pleasing but is soon repeated a little too often at sometimes unnecessary moments.
The reasons for the production’s longevity and success (with both Tony and Olivier Award nominations) are clear. There is engaging romance and fun songs, and the addition of the different theatrical elements mentioned above certainly adds to this. Brief Encounter is a fun play and the cast is undeniably talented, as are the musicians James Gow and Dave Brown, who perform onstage with the cast on a variety of instruments. While the projections and puppets are entertaining, they are not memorable enough to make this play more than just an enjoyable evening. Brief Encounter will be just that for me: it will not stay with me for long. But then, does theatre always have to?
State Theatre Company of South Australia in association with Arts Projects Australia presents the Kneehigh production of Noël Coward’s ‘Brief Encounter’. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes with no interval. Season plays in Adelaide until September 28, then tours to Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney, Wollongong and Perth. Adelaide tickets from $25 at Bass.