With a red carpet entrance, champagne reception, red roses hanging from the ceiling, 1930s signage and plush red curtains with gold brocade; the glamour stakes have certainly been upped in the transformation from Cineworld on Haymarket to the new ‘Cinema Haymarket.’ Playing host to Kneehigh’s new staging of the classic film Brief Encounter, the cinema has been transformed into the theatre it used to be back in the 1930s, complete with art deco interior, crystal chandeliers, usherettes in pill-box hats, plush velvet seats and tea and cakes during the intermission. Step this way into the time capsule. Even the audience were playing along as most of them came in 40s dress, welcoming a return to old-school glamour and that bygone age of romance and the silver screen.
Combining David Lean’s 1945 film version with additional material from Noël Coward's earlier one-act stage play Still Life, Kneehigh’s production switches seamlessly between film and live theatrical performance to enact the romance of a chance meeting in a railway station tea room. Moreover, somewhat serendipitously Kneehigh have managed to secure the very venue in which the classic film premiered and, with free programmes and significantly cheaper tickets than most West End venues (although not quite back to their wartime levels), I cannot help but applaud their effort.
Our expectations, having been built up so, are not to be dashed in the opening to the show. The magic does not cease once the actors have shown us to our seats and the musicians have strolled around the auditorium singing songs. As the lights go down our protagonists GP Alec and housewife Laura get up from their seats in the centre of the front row of the stalls and start arguing in the aisle, illuminated only by the torches of the rest of the cast, dressed as 1930s cinema ushers, who shush them to keep quiet. Seconds later, they are up on stage, walking straight through the screen, immediately to be transformed into a grainy black and white, one-dimensional film image. It's a moment where theatre and cinema merge, and it sums up what is great about this production, the technical wonderment, the humour and the sense of atmosphere – this is an experience rather than a play.
With words and songs provided by Coward, the lives and loves of three couples are played out in the famous station tearoom, resulting in an intelligent, delightfully funny production with just one too many gimmicks. Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock are the middle-class couple whose paths cross in a railway station tearoom, with doctor Alec removing grit from Laura’s eye and thereby signaling the start of a at once doomed yet passionate love affair. However, in this production it is the supporting cast who come off best, Amanda Lawrence is excellent as Beryl and generates most of the laughs, Tamzin Griffin perfect as her haughty boss and Stuart McLoughlin’s musical interludes as rough-edged Stanley nearly steal the show.
Unfortunately, the charm Kneehigh has in its playfulness and innovation takes away from the very quality that makes the original Brief Encounter an endlessly moving love story. While Rice dedicates a page in the programme to the universal meaning of Laura and Alec’s love affair, the parody element is so strong it takes over Coward’s love story. Somehow Frederick and Sturrock just cannot be taken seriously against the constant stream of stage tricks, physical stunts and gags. Once Alec and Laura have swung from the ceiling on chandeliers it’s hard not to lose some of the subtle nuances of Coward’s dialogue, it’s all just a little bit too silly. Moreover, Sturrock has about as much charisma as a packet of crisps and the chemistry between the leads is practically nonexistent – while the sparks fly quite literally on set, they fail to appear in the acting. The only saving grace was the songs and music, sufficiently bawdy but also providing the emotional subtext so lacking in the acting.
The whole appeared a little forced, the overbearing symbolism in the projection of waves representing Laura’s passion and need for liberation, for example, missed the core of Coward’s work which is all about subtlety and repression. While Rice’s production works as a parody, it fails on a deeper emotional level. There is no sense of passion, no sense of that struggle which is the gift of Coward’s writing.
In terms of parody though, the dance hall routines bridging the scenes are delightful and in the interval the silver screen showed some lovely spoofs of 1930s advertising – “if you’re having trouble with the ladies because of your baldness, fear not, the cure is to get a wig which comes with free flesh coloured chin-strap!”
The use of cinematic trickery was the other highlight, but more could have been done with it, especially since when it was used the result was breathtaking: such as when it was used to startling effect as a huge white sheet was pulled across the front of the stage and a express train shot across the entire stage while Laura stood above, contemplating a highly dramatic death. The interface between screen and stage was fascinating and cleverly done, but I fear Kneehigh only began to explore it’s true potential here and there is much more to come from this company. The audience were happy though, showing their pleasure in a standing ovation, although perhaps more of a nostalgic response rather than anything else? Indeed, the elderly lady sitting behind me was the highlight of my night, she enthusiastically sang along to the 30s songs and commented on all the action, thus ensuring I missed no detail. Although I was left feeling slightly underwhelmed, her enjoyment was contagious and reminded me of Kneehigh’s strength in involving and interacting with their audience.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A valuable theatrical Encounter. MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The show friskily demonstrates Kneehigh's skill but at the cost of the quiet integrity that makes the original Brief Encounter so peerlessly moving." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Enjoyable."
Production photo Alistair Muir