Friday, 11 October 2013

Brief Encounter, Kneehigh, Oct 11, 2013 ****

Kneehigh, Melbourne Festival
Adapted from Noel Coward by Emma Rice
Atheneaum Theatre, Oct 11 to 24, 2013
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ****
Review also published in Herald Sun online on Sun,Oct 13, & in print on Mon, Oct 14, 2013. KH 

   Laura (Michelle Nightingale) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon) in Brief Encounter

Fans of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter, a romantic movie about an illicit affair, may think this stage version dilutes the poignant drama with too much playful comedy – but it is hearty entertainment.

Director, Emma Rice’s adaptation takes an inventive theatrical leap from the 1945 film to the modern stage, telling the story of hapless lovers, Laura (Michelle Nightingale) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon), through cinematic projections, live performance, comedy and music.

Alec and Laura are both married with families, but their first, chance encounter in a railway station cafe during 1938 leads to weekly meetings and then to a burgeoning, passionate, but impossible love.

Nightingale and Sturgeon replicate the studied, elevated acting style, refined vowels, romantic dialogue and very English social reserve of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnston in the film, as they step warily around each other until they are helplessly in love.

Rice’s production cunningly creates the illusion of Laura and Alec crossing from stage into film when they step through the projection screen to magically appear inside the on-screen train (film design: Jon Driscoll, Gemma Carrington).

In a deceptively simple design (Neil Murray) resembling a shambolic, ‘30s railway station, six talented actors establish swift changes of location and time using clever theatrical devices and rapid scene changes.

The aching, emotional truth and intimacy of Laura and Alec’s dialogue are balanced by imaginative theatrical physicality and comic business that elicit cheers from the audience.

The tenderness and agony of the couple’s hopeless passion is the heart of the film but, in this stage version, it is counterpointed by an increased focus on two comical couples from the railway cafe.

With her hilariously affected vowels, Annette McLaughlin plays Myrtle, the brusque cafe manager who is courted by Albert, portrayed with frisky cheerfulness by Joe Alessi.

Young Stanley, played with brazen callowness by Damon Daunno, pursues bouncy, pert Beryl chirpily depicted by Kate Cheel.

Accompanied by live musicians (Dave Brown, James Gow) and lilting harmonies from the cast, Daunno’s fine, melodic voice does justice to a selection of Coward’s distinctive songs.

The Coward’s songs include: Mad About The Boy, Any Little Fish, No Good At Love, Go Slow Johnnie, which accompanies a seductively slow motion undressing scene, and Sturgeon sings an achingly sad version of Room With a View.

Although the stage production lacks the depth and breadth of Alec and Laura’s relationship and the dark atmosphere of the film, it cannot be judged against the movie because they are different animals for different times, venues and audiences. Enjoy it for what it is.

By Kate Herbert

Director: Emma Rise
Designer: Neil Murray
Original Music: Stu Baker

Performers: Joe Alessi, Kate Cheel, Damon Daunno, Annette McLaughlin, Michelle Nightingale, Ji Sturgeon
Musicans: Dave Brown, James Gow

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