The West End and Broadway sometimes look like a multiplex showing stage versions of well-known film titles side-by-side, with The Lion King, Kinky Boots and School of Rock playing in both London and New York, while New York also now has Frozen, Mean Girls, Anastasia, A Bronx Tale and Spongebob SquarePants, and London has Young Frankenstein, Network and Harold & Maude. Blurring the boundaries even more now is the return of Kneehigh's 2008 stage version of David Lean's 1945 film Brief Encounter, which is actually playing in a cinema multiplex on the Haymarket, a venue that intriguingly originally opened as a theatre in 1927 before becoming a movie house.
And the one-off factory of theatrical wizardry that is Emma Rice offers an utterly enveloping stage show that both honours and respects the film origins of its material, with characters stepping from the stage right into a black and white projected version of themselves, much as Woody Allen had his characters do in his 1985 masterpiece The Purple Rose of Cairo (except there they were stepping from film into film).
But that's not the only sense of playfulness and inventiveness, exhilaration and wonder on offer. As Rice demonstrated just last year with the original musical Romantics Anonymous at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (which was shamefully overlooked for the Olivier Awards), she is incurably romantic. Even if, in the case of Brief Encounter, there's something illicit and dangerous about the brief encounter between a married mother of two and the handsome doctor who removes some grit from her eye at the station and sets them on a whirlwind of regular Thursday afternoon lunch and cinema outings.
Rice articulates both the excitement and pain of an initially innocent encounter that turns passionate with a fierce theatricality. She says of its first incarnation in a programme note, "Defying usual theatre norms, it was neither a play nor a musical, a comedy or a tragedy. It was itself, and it was fresh and true." Now it is proudly and unapologetically billed as a musical, and you might well call it a jukebox musical, too, as it draws on Noel Coward songs from throughout his catalogue -- from A Room with A View (1928) and Mad About the Boy (1932) to songs from the 1961 musical Sail Away.
A multi-tasking actor-musician company play and sing up a storm, with terrific musical work from Jos Slovickl, Dean Nolan and Beverly Rudd amongst the company that is led by Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon as the would-be lovers.
It is one of the most exquisite and exhilarating shows in town.
What the popular press said...
"This is such a great night out: a show of genuine invention, with broad appeal to both young and old, and a big, bruised, beating heart."
Lyn Gardner, The Guardian (four stars)
"It’s a decade since [Emma Rice's] Kneehigh staging first played this venue; now it returns, recast, as playful, romantic, heartfelt and touching as ever."
Sarah Hemming, Financial Times (four stars)
"[An] unstoppably entertaining exhumation of Emma Rice’s greatest hit."
Dominic Maxwell, The Times (four stars)
"In a cinema that’s been converted into an elegant theatre space and is just a damp handkerchief’s throw from Piccadilly Circus, it remains a vision of unconsummated desire and a very English kind of stoical decency, with lashings of Rachmaninov’s lyrical piano music. Yet it’s different from the film, with fresh layers of mischief and humour."
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard (four stars)