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REVIEW - Brief Encounter is an absolutely superb production that brims over with the talent of its cast, creatives and production team

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On Thursday, we went to the Royal Exchange Theatre to watch Brief Encounter. Read what our reviewer Christa Norton thought about this incredible production...

It is years since I first watched David Lean’s iconic film of Brief Encounter, yet there are some moments that remain absolutely seared into my memory, that echo in my mind when I am watching a film, or reading a book. The moment that plays in my head most frequently happens at the very end of the film, when Trevor Howard gently squeezes Celia Johnson’s shoulder. It marks their last physical contact, and turns every unfulfilled desire into a touch that is both electric and bland. For me, it is an anticlimax that just bursts with heartbreak and regret and longing.


However, whilst the film is adored, the original screenplay of Noel Coward (based on his original one act play ‘Still Life’) is not so widely acclaimed, and does differ – in some places significantly - from the film script.

This production of Brief Encounter, directed by Sarah Frankcom (Hamlet, A Streetcar Named Desire), former Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange, and adapted for stage by Emma Rice (The Red Shoes, Wise Children), is neither the film script nor the original play but finds a happy medium between the two.


For me, the attraction of this particular storyline is that it is so deliciously every day. It doesn’t need the backdrop of war and violence, or illness, or disaster as its catalyst. These are not extraordinary people trying to find happiness in desperate circumstances. If anything, these are simply two people who are bored and – to take the word from The Great Gatsby - careless. I should probably point out now that part of the reason why I love the film so much is that I fundamentally dislike the two main characters and at no point do I root for their relationship. I take it much more as a cautionary tale, and I do wonder whether Coward wrote it as such.


Brief Encounter
focuses on Laura Jesson, a typical middle class, suburban housewife who is not so much trapped rather than existing in a dull marriage. One afternoon, she chances to meet Alec Harvey, a GP who comes to her aid in helping her remove some grit from her eye. He too is married, with children. A second chance encounter follows, then a third and before long what has started as a gentle friendship – and a respite from the boredom – has inevitably taken on a more impulsive nature, as both characters become equally conscious of their growing attraction.

 

Neither Coward nor Rice spend long entangling the audience in a ‘will they/won’t they’ – it is apparent from the outset the direction that this story is taking. What is interesting is the ‘how they/when they’ – that is how Alec and Laura allow their attraction to grow, how they feed it, and how outside influences – especially societal expectations – escalate and ultimately shape the decisions they make about their relationship.



So does this stage adaptation still pack that same emotional punch?

In short, yes. This is an absolutely superb production that brims over with the talent of its cast, creatives and production team. And where I had expected an evening of melodrama, instead we were presented with live jazz, phenomenal singing and some brilliant comic acting intertwined through a more empathetic approach to the story.

I have to begin with the music, because I think this is where the real success of this production lies.  In a stroke of genius, it includes eleven of Coward’s songs, allowing characters to explore their emotions without needing heavy or fraught dialogue. It doesn’t quite become a musical, indeed some of the songs barely get to the chorus, but for me it creates an unexpected sense of joy and fun that the audience really embraced.


 

That said, whilst musical numbers don’t dominate, music itself is ever-present in this production. A vivacious, ballsy live band (Alice Phelps, Jenny Walinetski and Sam Quinn), directed from the piano by Matthew Malone (The Book Thief, A Christmas Carol), provide not just a soundtrack to the play but musical moments and sound effects that help punctuate everything that is happening on stage. In fact there was very little time when there wasn’t some sort of harmony – all the more impressive as (so far as I could see) Malone was playing entirely without sheet music.

 

This musical texture gave context in an otherwise very sparse staging, which comprised of little other than some tables and chairs and the café counter, all underneath an iconic station clock. In my opinion, there isn’t much more needed, and this approach gives the actors the space to really work the 360 stage and ensure no part of the audience misses out. One effect I will call out though is the way the entire stage – and all the audience seating – shakes to simulate a train going past. It is a simple piece of stage craft but again, very well thought through and effective.


 

This musical texture is also helped by the incredible quality of the singing. Every member of the cast is brilliant but Christina Modestou (Strictly Come Dancing, Love Actually), as Myrtle, is my stand out performance of the evening. Her gentle romance with the honest and affectionate Albert (Richard Glaves – (Holby City, Atonement)) makes for a stark comparison with the main leads. Modestou has wonderful comic timing throughout in a performance that reminded me at times both of Victoria Wood and Nora Batty, but her performance of ‘No Good at Love’ is just so powerful, I could have happily listened to her sing all night.


Ida Regan
(The Secret Life of Ophelia, Doctors) does however come a very close second. Her mousey and timid portrayal of the slightly downtrodden Beryl is again brilliantly comically observed, but is made all the more hilarious by her moment in the spotlight when she belts out a highly sultry and seductive ‘Mad About the Boy’. She has a deep, throaty voice that is perfect for jazz and her performance is both sexy and funny in equal turns.


 

Hannah Azuonye (MacBeth, Hanna) and Baker Mukasa (Peter Pan, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical) as the leads Laura and Alec both gave considered performances, definitely making me rethink my perception of their characters. Mukasa’s Alec, whilst self declared as middle aged, is boyish, energetic and spontaneous. His passion for his work and innocent pleading of ‘not quite yet’ at their parting, is charming.  

Azuonye by comparison presents Laura as a woman quite unused to the emotions she is experiencing, and totally unable to manage or cope with them: in fact she is slowly losing herself to them. This is shown best in a fabulous dance sequence in the second act which brings together Ballroom, Tango and Jive, and which ends with Laura dancing not with Alec, but on her own.

Both these performances bring depth to the characters and whilst I don’t think I will ever be able to like these careless people, in this production at least, I could feel some sense of pity for the misery and pain which they cause themselves.

 

Georgia Frost (Brassic, Eastenders) is utterly charming as Stanley, the boy about whom Beryl is mad. Frost has the challenge of being the first cast member to burst into song, which can always be a bit jarring especially where there hasn’t been a full jazz hands opening number, but she does it so naturally – and performs ‘Any Little Fish’ with such cheekiness and sauce, you can’t help going along with it.

This excellent cast is completed with Matthew Allen (Doctors, Napoleon), who like the rest of the supporting cast plays a number of roles, but really comes into his own with a fantastic saxophone solo, demonstrating again the versatility of this excellent cast.

I genuinely think it is a rare thing to find a production of such consistent calibre – the audience were definitely appreciative, with a large amount of cheering and clapping throughout the show! There are simply too many moments that are touching, or funny, or well crafted to list in this review but this a production that absolutely deserves to be seen.


WE SCORE BRIEF ENCOUNTER...



Brief Encounter is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 13th January.

Watch our "In Conversation with HANNAH AZUONYE & BAKER MUKASA discussing Brief Encounter" video

BUY TICKETS TO SEE BRIEF ENCOUNTER




All photos are credited to Johan Persson

 

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