Brief Encounter | Kneehigh TheatreIn the 1920s, Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre was the first venue in Australia to screen talking pictures. This venerable theatre is the perfect place to stage a production that harks back to the 1930s, when Noël Coward wrote the one-act play Still Life, and invites the audience to revisit David Lean’s much-loved 1945 movie Brief Encounter, which was based on the play. The famous ‘encounter’ takes place in a railway station tea room between a housewife, Laura, and a doctor, Alec Harvey, both married.

Kneehigh Theatre, under the direction of Emma Rice, uses both Coward’s play and Lean’s movie to evoke the passionate extra-marital affair made famous onscreen by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, and brings it into sharp and poignant relief by using elements that, in less capable hands, could have distracted from the central story and reduced it to mere light entertainment: music, physical comedy, film projection, puppets and trickery of all sorts.

Rice’s adaptation of Brief Encounter brings visual excitement and sheer physicality to the fore. The multi-talented troupe of actors break into song and dance or synchronised movements, with the help of instrumentalists dressed as railway porters. The spirit of Noel Coward lives on in the eclectic mix of theatrical styles. His dialogue and songs are adhered to faithfully, with the addition of extra music written to fit the era. The use of film footage, supplemented by new video sequences, gives the characters room to move between two and three dimensions. These scenes, where film and theatre interface, are both visually and emotionally captivating.

For the most part, the love affair runs its course, as in the original play, at the railway tearoom, with Laura (Michelle Nightingale) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon) bearing an uncanny resemblance to their screen forebears Johnson and Howard. Nightingale, an Adelaide performer who flew to the UK to play Laura with Kneehigh Theatre, plays the role with powerful emotional restraint, expressed in the breathless clipped tones of a well-bred Englishwoman of the time.

Scottish actor Sturgeon also maintains a British reserve, but is more exuberant in expressing his hopes and dreams, and literally sweeps Laura off her feet in a scene buoyed by projected champagne bubbles. Their relationship is utterly believable, and their most intimate scene, played to Coward’s song ‘Go Slow, Johnny’, is a spellbinding feat of ensemble work.

In the parallel relationship of the lower-class station workers, Albert (Joe Alessi) and Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), comedy overrides romance. Alessi, who also plays Laura’s husband Fred, moves seamlessly from verbal comedy to slapstick to tender straight acting. McLaughlin, as the doyenne of the tea room, is a long-legged flamboyant comedienne, who dominates the cabaret-style sections with her outrageous dance moves, strident tones and bawdy behaviour.

A third romantic couple – Myrtle’s assistant in the tea room, Beryl (Kate Cheel, another Adelaide actor), and Stanley (Damon Daunno) – are adept at conveying cheekiness, naivety and the optimism of the young.

In contrast to the comedy, there are scenes of quiet intensity. Fred, in his armchair, waits for Laura to come home, the clock ticking away the minutes. His loyalty and patience are as affecting as the passion of the protagonists. At the time Coward was writing, particularly during the wartime years, illicit longings were rife, but devotion to family predominated. In our own more permissive era, when audiences could be less moved by the lovers’ moral dilemma, Rice succeeds in making this scenario credible. She keeps a fine balance between tragedy and comedy and reinforces the original theme of stable marital love co-existing with the longings of the heart.

This Kneehigh Theatre production, which has toured London’s West End, the UK and Broadway, closes on a crescendo of love, laughter and the joy of the silver screen, in a moment that epitomises this brilliant fusion of theatre and film, comedy and romance.

Kneehigh Theatre presents
Brief Encounter
adapted from Noël Coward’s play Still Life and screenplay Brief Encounter
Director Emma Rice

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne
Dates: 11 – 27 October 2013
Time: Tues 6.30pm;Wed 11am & 6.30pm;Thurs/Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 5pm.
Bookings: Ticketek

Part of the 2013 Melbourne Festival

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