A Brief Encounter with a bygone era

Published April 17, 2008

Red roses strewn from the ceiling, a red carpet in the entrance, 1930s signage and plush red curtains with gold brocade; the Cineworld on Haymarket is rapidly being transformed into the newly named Cinema Haymarket, which, from 2 February, will host Kneehigh theatre’s live stage production of Brief Encounter.

“The idea is to take you back in time,” said David Pugh, who, with Dafydd Rogers, is producing the show and today gave Official London Theatre a sneak preview of the unusual venue. Back to the 1930s in fact, with tea and cucumber sandwiches served in the interval by usherettes in costumes reminiscent of the era when Noël Coward wrote his one-act play Still Life, upon which David Lean’s famous 1946 film was based.

Kneehigh’s production is based on both the original 1936 play and the screenplay, and uses film, split screens and live theatrical performance to enact the romantic story of a man and a woman who meet in a railway station tea room.

Consequently, a stage is being built in the 440-seat Cinema One to make it suitable to host live theatre, while the existing cinema seats and original chandeliers, newly polished, add to the cinematic feel of the production. It is a wholly appropriate show for the venue to host, since when the building first opened in 1926 as the Carlton Theatre, it was intended as both a theatrical and cinematic venue. In 1946 it even hosted the UK film premiere of Brief Encounter.

It has, however, taken time, much planning and £350,000 of investment to bring this project to fruition. The seeds of the production were first sown when Pugh gave his mother a copy of Brief Encounter for Mother’s Day. After she declared it her favourite film, Pugh was inspired to approach Cornish theatre company Kneehigh – known for its innovative productions including A Matter Of Life And Death at the National last year – to work on a new stage production. Workshops preceded try-outs at Birmingham Repertory theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse, to good reviews. Pugh subsequently received offers from several ‘traditional’ West End theatres to bring the show to London.

But, said Pugh: “It didn’t feel totally right because we felt we were missing something.” Then, after rats, damp and inconvenient pillars put paid to the plan to stage the production in the old Kingsway tram station, Pugh thought of the Cineworld. “The conceit of the piece is that it starts in a cinema,” said Pugh of the new production. The old Carlton Theatre therefore “just seemed to be perfect”. Emma Rice, Artistic Director of Kneehigh, agrees: “It means that the venue is part of the meaning of the show. From the moment you walk inside you are part of that world.”

An agreement with Cineworld Chief Executive Steve Wiener meant the plans could go ahead, once the building had re-secured a license to stage live theatre, and the venue is now totally given over to Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter – though appropriate film showings may be resurrected on the other two screens after the initial few weeks. The production is initially booking until June but Pugh said he had hopes it would run there “for some years”.

CB