Kneehigh is an impressive touring theatre company based in Cornwall, in the UK, and it has a unique approach to creating theatre. It begins with a concept or a story and then the actors playfully experiment with ways of staging ideas associated with this. Here, director Emma Rice has used Noel Coward’s short play Still Life (later made into the film Brief Encounter) as inspiration for an inventive, imaginative, dynamic piece of comedic theatre that is physical and musical.
Brief Encounter is the story of Laura, who is married to a man who is “kindly, emotional and not delicate at all”. By chance she meets a handsome young married doctor in a railway station; they are immediately attracted and the clandestine nature of their whirlwind romance makes it all the more exciting.
Adelaide actress Michelle Nightingale (Laura) and Jim Sturgeon (Alec) capture the 1940s era in their crisp articulation of Coward’s sharp dialogue, but they make this experience much more real than simply a re-creation of a period and style long gone. The passion and pain of a forbidden attraction – as experienced by Coward himself as a gay man in the 1940s – is moving, timeless and something to which everyone will be able to relate.
In Rice’s production, the minor characters in Coward’s original play are just as prominent as the mature married couple having an affair. Kate Cheel (another Adelaide actress) is Betty, a young woman who is learning to serve in the railway cafeteria and who is experiencing a first romance with Stanley (Damon Daunno), who also works on the railway platform. Cheel finds playful ways of portraying a young woman who is in love but who is also easily distracted and happily reverts to being a girl just having fun.
Annette McLaughlin is Mrs Bagot, a somewhat severe tea lady who has strict rules about the way tea and Banbury cakes should be served and who, sadly, has not been successful in love, although there seems to be some hope thanks to her dalliance with Albert (Joe Alessi).
Brief Encounter is a superb night’s entertainment and is the kind of show that restores one’s faith in theatre. All the actors are highly skilled performers: they act, sing, play instruments and dance, have excellent comic timing but turn on pathos when required.
The evening begins with the ensemble dressed as train porters, gently and softly singing songs of the era in the foyer and the auditorium, and they establish an atmosphere and rapport with the audience well before the curtain goes up. From that moment on, they continue to impress. The actors all play a range of characters and when they do so, they create very different, clearly defined personas. There are some absolute gems of characterisations, such as busybody gossips interfering with and judging the two lovers and two soldiers who cause mischief. Alessi even plays a tree with style, poise and comedy, and Cheel is a grumpy waitress who gives Basil Fawlty a run for his money.
Emma Rice has included nine Noel Coward songs and incidental music which adds to the delight of this production. The music is never intrusive, always complementing the action, and there is very clever choreography, some of which is of the period and fun, but one pas de deux between Alessi and McLaughlin that is hysterical. A stylised slow piece between Nightingale and Sturgeon, accompanied by beautiful music and soft lighting, conveys the sensuality and thrill of an affair with minimal removal of clothing.
Kneehigh makes excellent use of a range of media in its productions, and Brief Encounter integrates black and white film and projections in a fresh and magical way. Neil Murray’s set establishes a pedestrian walk-over on a train platform, as well as a cafeteria which is easily converted into a lounge room, bedroom or a boat shed using technology and clever lighting that invites audience members to imagine a location rather than delineating it for them.
This is a brilliant production by an outstanding theatre company, and it is marvellous to see local actors Nightingale and Cheel working so well with an international cast. Just as an exciting but brief affair will be indelibly stamped upon an individual, so, too, will Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter.
Brief Encounter is playing at the Dunstan Playhouse until September 29.
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