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Review: Can a live action Brief Encounter match the movie classic?

The Playhouse Theatre has tackled one of Tre Ventour’s favourite films with their stage production of Brief Encounter…

One evening, after seeing A Passage to India at Royal & Derngate last year, fellow reviewer Kevin Evans (Bill in Brief Encounter) told me that the Playhouse Theatre are putting on Brief Encounter in January / February 2018.

The cogs in my head began to churn and my curious nature outweighed my thoughts on the film being the best thing since sliced bread – meaning that anything that isn’t the David Lean adaptation will be bad by default. Wrong.

I go to the Playhouse Theatre. I sit down. The play starts. It’s not so bad. It’s actually pretty good truth be told. Based on the novel by Noel Coward, the film Brief Encounter is my favourite David Lean picture and one of the greatest films ever mad. There isn’t a bad film in his filmography. Not one.

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When Laura Jesson (Mary O’Brien) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Jof Davies) meet by chance in a railway station café, little do they know that their lives will change forever. Every Thursday, she goes into the city to shop and see film at the cinema. Soon, Alec joins her for lunch and then a film. Both are married with children but they enjoy each other’s company. When they realize they are hopelessly in love, they must deal with the torment that follows – the reality in which a future together is out of the question.  

Adapted by Emma Rice, this production has done well, using lights and sound creatively. Aesthetically, this is what theatre is all about. Using bits of the film was a good touch too. Moreover, recreating parts in black and white was unexpected. In the words of Old Ben, “a surprise to be sure but a welcome one.”

Those noir black and white shots are as iconic as you can get – a motif for that textbook English “keep calm and carry on” mentality – masked emotions and that not-so-stereotypical stiff upper lip.

The cast and crew have pulled out all the stops in creating the aura of a mid-1940s filmhouse, fresh from the war; the whole thing is a multimedia narrative, blending live theatre with cinema, some bits filmed for the production. Adding to the 1940s feel are ushers with torches to keep order in the auditorium, trying to shut our lovers up. And that was before the interval where Banbury buns and finger sandwiches were up for grabs.

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I’m a sucker for black and white films – Double Indemnity, The Third Man (genius), Imitation of Life, Psycho (Hitchcock’s masterpiece), It’s a Wonderful Life! (got to love Jimmy Stewart). You name it. Specially recorded black and white scenes were shot to show our couple’s torment, exhibiting that noir bleakness in contrast to the lighter tones on stage.

At its core, lies Mary O’Brien and Jof Davies’ masterclass performances. They both embody this sense of claustrophobia in relation to the world around them. And they’re both dressed to kill. When Harvey is caught by his work associate in his flat, this scene is as awkward as it’s supposed to be – delivering a fitting subtext to the 1940s’ feelings on adultery, a concept which isn’t accepted like it is now. Back then, it was scandalous to thing. Now, it’s as frequent as breathing. This scene is enough to make one sweat the cold sweat, creating claw marks in the armrest. Chilling.

As a child, I went to Great Houghton Preparatory School and then Wellingborough School, places where how you talked was important. Clarity and diction was something those schools took seriously. And now, I do too. O’Brien’s clarity of voice is what we listen to in audiobooks. Brilliant. And even as Jesson’s world is falling apart, O’Brien’s diction is a reflection of that national identity. Even when things are looking bleak, you must talk properly with a nice cup of tea in your hand and everything will feel better. Maybe.

April Pardoe as Myrtle and Helen Kennedy as Beryl were excellent. That light banter in café. Good. Not to forget to mention those Banbury buns being offered to the front row. Audience interaction at its best. Adrian Wyman as the station master had this Charlie Chaplin-vibe. City Lights, not The Great Dictator. Much of the comedy in this didn’t feel like contemporary actors attempting period humour. It felt real. It felt like actors of the era doing things that were of that era.

Positives aside, were the musical numbers really necessary? The in-play musical numbers detached me from the story and forced an eye roll. Additionally, they seemed make the play longer (like longer means better). They were nothing more than crowd pleasers. Post-show, there was a sing-a-long which was completely unnecessary and it was impossible to leave! I love musicals, but the way the songs were done like Glee, unsophisticated and very Hollywood.

In conclusion, Northampton’s Playhouse have done well with Brief Encounter. Every so often, they burst into song but they’re easily forgettable so that’s a plus. Would I see it again? Actually, I would. Good job.

 

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