Tucked away in the bustle of Piccadilly, KneeHigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter is enjoying a pleasantly long run at the Empire Theatre Haymarket. The two-hour, no-interval production is based on Noel Coward’s classic film, released in 1945. This particular production has been doing the rounds since 2008, but has rarely settled in London for so long. This summer it enjoys its ten-year anniversary and a mighty revival.
A beautiful mix of film and theatre, this production features all that is great about intimate productions. The show opened with the protagonists breaking the fourth wall, watching the film itself from the plush cinema seats of the Empire. This set a precedent, seamlessly flowing between screen and stage. Isabel Pollen, who played Laura with a wonderful pained Englishness, stepped through the screen (which was very apt in the cinematic setting) and into the action. This opener acted as a reminder of what KneeHigh are just so good at; multi-disciplined, creative theatre.
“Multi-disciplined, creative theatre”
A few of these clever tricks should be noted for their style. As we also see in The Woman in Black, some simple gentle rocking creates the illusion of train movement. Of course, comedy was added as the high-speed train passed through and the tearoom blew into chaos. Most of these theatrical tricks are clever, and often funny, but in some cases, they also truly add to the beauty of the piece. This was seen in the moment when Alec and Laura truly believe that they have fallen in love with one another. The strength of feeling quite literally makes Alec fly, swinging from the chandeliers with Laura in his arms.
A special mention must be given to Jos Slovik, who plays Stanley, but also acts as a fantastic musician. Along with Seamus Carey and Pat Morgan as the house band, Slovik’s poignantly cheeky vocals (and some impressive upside-down ukulele playing) drew the piece together with rustic charm. Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto is so synonymous with the original film, but was surprisingly not missed. Although the piano takes centre stage (and also acted as the tea room counter), its rough and ready edges and chintzy doily decoration let us know that it hosts more Noël Coward ditty’s than classical grandeur.
Another performance of note was that of Dean Nolan as Albert. The energy that he brought to the stage was unparalleled, and his relationship with Mrs Bagot (Lucy Thackeray) was electric with its raunchy humour. Nolan’s embodiment of character was so good that he was almost unrecognisable as Fred, Laura’s dull but faithful husband.
“Rice strikes a balance between the cinematic and the theatrical”
This production is as much Emma Rice’s as it is the Noël Coward classic. By adding just enough of Coward’s most famous numbers, such as ‘Any Little Fish’ and ‘Mad About the Boy’, Rice ensures that her adaptation is faithful to the original whilst also not going above its station. This is ultimately a small-scale production. Keeping the production clean and simple, without the “rustic” elements looking twee is no mean feat. That being said, the juxtaposition between stage and screen was played out successfully from pre-performance until exiting the theatre.
The Empire Cinema Haymarket is a perfect fit for this production. From the pillbox hat-wearing cinema attendants that guided us to our seats to the choreographed routines, Rice strikes a balance between the cinematic and the theatrical. In just two hours she gives the audience cinematic love, slapstick stage comedy and a whole lot of drama. The audience find themselves relaxing into their seats in the comfort of Laura and Fred’s living room and biting their nails as they are swept up in the storm of Laura and Alec’s affair.
A fantastic way to spend two hours, Brief Encounter really is theatre for all. I defy you to find a part of this masterpiece that you can’t fall for. You will be able to find Brief Encounter at The Empire Cinema Haymarket until September 2018.
Image: Steve Tanner