Broadway Theater Review, Dec. 5, 2010
Brief Encounter at Roundabout Theater’s Studio 54 is Noel Coward’s tale of an impromptu illicit affair that is doomed from the start but is nonetheless overwhelmingly compelling. Set in England circa 1938 and subject to society’s narrow views, Alec (Tristan Sturrock) and Laura (Hannah Yelland) are forced into the shadows, meeting in secret and awkward rendezvous. Their love rekindles their passion for life and for dreams long forgotten only to be dashed as they struggle to reemerge guilt free and whole. In her notes to the audience, director Emma Rice likens their tryst to the playwright’s struggles as a gay man in that same repressive society:
“Imagine being gay in 1930 and you begin to understand Brief Encounter. Imagine the impossibility of expressing the most fundamental of human needs and emotions. Imagine the enforced shame, lies, and deceit. Imagine the frustration, imagine the loss and imagine the anger.”
I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to say that the play does not have a typical and convenient Hollywood ending. Sounds like pretty serious stuff – perhaps even like a grueling and downer of an afternoon or evening.
But the Kneehigh Theatre Company’s production of this classic film based on an earlier one-act Coward play entitled Still Life, is a pleasant and light-hearted surpirse. The British repertory company brimming with talented actors under concise direction, works as a whole to successfully incorporate humor, song and dance (on-stage musicians plus most of the actors played an instrument and/or sang), and incredibly creative staging reminiscent of The 39 Steps. For example, there were moving trains, puppets, aerial dancers and sections of the original movie projected on the big screen into and from which characters literally entered or emerged, and a relatively simple but adaptable set designed by Neil Murray. Much of the music and lyrics were written by Coward but arrangements and supplementary musical compositions set to Coward’s lyrical poems were aptly provided by Stu Baker.
A couple of pieces of advice though: the show runs 90 minutes (a bit long without an intermission) so plan your pre-theater coffee consumption accordingly and avoid the cavernous balcony sections of Studio 54 and spring for an orchestra or close in mezzanine seat – we found ourselves straining to hear and see all the fast moving action from the nosebleed section