I’m not familiar with the 1945 film Brief Encounter on which British director Emma Rice based her stage version, or the Noël Coward one act Still Life on which the film is based. Rice’s version is my first exposure to this story of two mild-mannered people who fall helplessly in love with someone who is not their spouse, and a very touching story it is.
Coward imbued this story with his usual warmth and emotional subtlety; he was a great wit, but an even greater observer of the nuances of human emotion, and a very compassionate writer. Emma Rice, for her part, has found a way to frame Coward’s story with surprising humor and delicious theatricality.
The world that Alec (Tristan Sturrock) and Laura (Hannah Yelland) inhabit comes to vivid life as waitresses and soldiers sing and dance to Coward songs. And while Rice lovingly tells their story, this Brief Encounter isn’t meant to be at all realistic. When emotion hits Laura like a wave, we see a wave projected and Yelland moves like that wave has just hit her. Expressionistic – and very effective!
There are stretches where Rice and crew seem a little too in love with their theatrical cleverness (but as a director myself, I sympathize – where do you draw the line?). More often then not though, the images they give us are potent and evocative, and sometimes flat out gorgeous.
Rice has crafted this Brief Encounter as an ensemble piece, but Annette McLaughlin stands out marvelously as tea shop proprietor Myrtle, equally wonderful whether tersely defending herself against rowdy soldiers, or dancing a wild love tango with her man friend. Brief Encounter is the third Coward piece on Broadway in the last couple of years, and it is by far the most adventurous, a really invigorating evening in the theatre.
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