Brief Encounter at the Playhouse will linger long in the memory

Review by Brian MacReamoinn

This production of Brief Encounter at Salisbury Playhouse is based on the hugely successful 2007 adaptation by Emma Rice which weaves Noël Coward’s one-act play Still Life with the screenplay of the David Lean film version.

It’s the first stop on a tour of several major provincial theatres and the Salisbury audience rapturously received this dazzling revival and wholeheartedly approved of the novel take on what is, after all, a much-loved classic.

Witty and fast-paced, the show re-imagines the romantic drama in a series of short scenes, involving rapid costume changes, interspersed with bursts of song – some of Coward’s well-known tunes, including Mad About the Boy, as well as snatches of Rachmaninov, whose Piano Concerto No. 2 is indelibly associated with the film.

The stage is dominated by a huge circular diaphanous curtain (design: Jess Curtis) which is drawn back and forth on rails to reveal the various settings.
In the original play (written in 1936), the action takes place entirely within the railway refreshment room. The 1945 film opened out the story for cinematic purposes; and this interpretation adds yet another element with live music intertwining with the sparkling humour and romantic tension.

In this co-production between Wiltshire Creative and New Wolsey Theatre, in association with Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, the music is arranged by Tom Self. He is one of a sextet of amazingly versatile actor-musicians who take on multiple roles in the story, as well as playing an assortment of instruments including piano, trombone, and double bass.

All this brilliant musical virtuosity on display punctuates a gripping tale about two ordinary people who find themselves falling in love with each other when they’re not supposed to, at least according to the rules of society.

Alec (Jammy Kasongo) and Laura (Hanora Kamen) meet by chance at a train station and, despite both being married, embark on a forbidden journey. The leads expertly convey the lovers’ conflicting feelings, their passion and reserve, their desperate longing for escape and their sense of doing what’s right.
Although the adaptation doesn’t update the pre-war setting to modern times, it shortens the timescale, reducing the length of the affair from the play’s months to a few weeks, as part of making the whole thing move faster and adding more urgency to the couple’s actions and motives.

The flirtatious relationships between the minor characters provide much light comedy to offset the tragic nature of the central illicit affair. These are given full rein in some delightful song-and-dance sequences. When Alec and Laura are at their most carefree and have dinner together at a smart establishment, the musical troupe kitted out as bellhops provide a wonderful soundtrack to the couple’s joyous dancing.

The railway station echoes with the rumbling, ominous sounds of approaching and departing trains (sound designer: James Cook), adding to the atmosphere, and there are some striking video effects (Daniel Denton), especially the recurrent motif of waves crashing on the shore, thrillingly representing the turbulent emotions of Laura.

This thoroughly entertaining evening is a tribute to the lasting quality of Noël Coward’s unique “talent to amuse” and the tour itself marks the 50 years since Coward’s death in 1973. The source play began life as part of Tonight at 8.30, a 10-piece collection performed by the master himself, along with his favourite actress, Gertrude Lawrence.
Interestingly, the playwright is quoted in a recent edition of the collection as not being in favour of putting on previous work, calling it “cooking his cabbage twice”. Nevertheless, he surely would have made an exception for this fantastic revival.

Brief Encounter runs at Salisbury Playhouse until 22 April.
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