From the moment you step into the Cinema Haymarket you are a part of Kneehigh Theatre’s time-travelling experience. The Cornish theatre company has taken the cinema back to its 1930s theatrical roots with a new stage production of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter. As an audience member, you too are transported back to the era of polite ushers, cucumber sandwiches and suppressed passions. Caroline Bishop was at the first night.
The experience begins before the play starts, as the members of Kneehigh, dressed as ushers in the smartly buttoned attire of the era, casually entertain the audience in their seats with music and singing, breaking off occasionally to show someone to their seat or compliment a lady’s dress.
From the outset then, the audience is an integral part of the performance, and this continues throughout the show, which begins with Laura and Alec, the star-crossed lovers on whom this play centres, having an impassioned discussion in a cinema – the same cinema we sit in – while annoyed cinemagoers shh them loudly.
The story is a combination of Coward’s original stage play, Still Life, and the screenplay of the famous David Lean film Brief Encounter. Essentially it follows a man and a woman, both married, middle-class, professional, with accents as clipped and well-ordered as their married lives, who start a friendship and then an affair after a chance encounter in a railway station tea room.
Much of the action takes place in this tea room where the pair meet up each Thursday, cautiously yet inevitably drawn to each other. As the relationship develops, the station staff – each with their own fledgling relationships – become onlookers to these weekly clandestine meetings.
Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock, as Laura and Alec, portray a couple who feel increasing passion for each other, but it is a passion that simmers furiously underneath a layer of 1930s reserve that prevents them – particularly Laura – from throwing caution to the wind. In contrast, tea room manager Myrtle and waitress Beryl are unconfined by middle-class respectability, and the love each finds with their respective partners is less passionate, more down-to-earth and yet just as touching.
While the stories of these couples form the focal point, Kneehigh Artistic Director Emma Rice has created a show which is as much about experiencing the era as it is about the story. In a gentle parody, several of Coward’s songs and poems are performed in a 1930s music hall style, interspersed through the story, while mock adverts for soap, chicory tea and toupees are shown on a cinema screen after the interval.
It is also a balanced production, mixing doomed passion with comedy, romance with bawdiness, music with drama. Particularly effective is the combination of live action and film. Projections of crashing waves symbolise the passion that Laura and Alec feel for each other; Alec steps into a projection of a train as he leaves Laura at the station; at the play’s climax, Laura stands on a rail bridge as an Express rushes furiously past underneath.
It all adds up to an unusual, imaginative experience, proving that Kneehigh knows the way you tell a story is just as important as the story itself.