They may call themselves Kneehigh Theatre, but after the final curtain dropped on the British troupe’s imaginative re-telling of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter opening night, everyone was standing tall, applauding wildly for a show that bends genres, mixes media, and generally delights in every imaginable way. Romance, laughter, tears, songs, spectacle, and schtick, this show has it all. Okay, maybe not all. There’s no violence or bloodshed. No zombies, either. And the sex is pretty tame. But other than that . . .
Don’t be misled into thinking that this is some sort of faithful re-creation of the iconic movie upon which it is based. To say that Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter is an adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1946 screenplay is to criminally understate the extent to which it is a purely theatrical re-invention of the movie. It would be more accurate to call it a mutation, one in which the movie is the cocoon out of which this fabulously inventive, delightful work of musical theater has emerged.
Except for the words, Brief Encounter the play bears little resemblance to the movie primarily because it is wrapped in a playful, theatrical package that makes the mundane surroundings of the train station come vividly to life. Virtually everything that is humorous and heartfelt about this production is Kneehigh’s doing, not Noel Coward’s. For instance, every time a train passes through the station it does so in a different way: on one pass through it shakes the station like an earthquake, on another pass it is a toy train pulled across the stage, on another it speeds by on film projected on a scrim stretched across the stage. And the cast of characters that populates the train station café is a motley but endearing bunch of misfits without whom the show could not survive. Because in most of the important ways, they are the show.
Of course, the central story is about two married people, Alec (Milo Twomey) and Laura (Hannah Yelland), whose brief love affair begins and ends in a train station. Both Alec and Laura speak and act as if they have stepped out of an old movie—in that stiff, fast-talking, hyper-emotive patter of black-and-white filmdom. Alec is the handsome leading man, a charming doctor who meets Laura when he helps remove a piece of grit from her eye, metaphorically allowing her to see more clearly that he is the one for her . Laura is a repressed housewife, a “responsible” woman who yearns to be irresponsible—and is, if only for a little while.
All of which is charming and familiar, but it’s the shenanigans and flirtations of the characters in the train-station café that really bring the play to life, and that’s all Kneehigh. There’s Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), the sassy/saucy manager of the café; Albert, the conductor who flirts relentlessly with Myrtle; Beryl (Beverly Rudd), the kitchen help; and Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin), a concessionaire who has the hots for Beryl. As Alec and Laura’s drama plays out, these characters are also involved in various infatuations and entanglements, including several priceless moments of lighthearted romantic comedy. They also sing the loveliest, most heartbreaking songs, all of which broadens the emotional palette of the play in ways that are frequently sublime. (I never knew a song strummed on a ukelele could be so sad.)
Much has been made of the interactive multimedia elements of the play—in which the characters onstage interact with characters on film, which Kneehigh re-staged and re-shot—but this gimmick is actually used quite sparingly. For the most part, the giant video screen behind the actors serves as an atmospheric backdrop, with ocean waves crashing on the beach and blue skies full of puffy clouds, like a giant projection of Alec and Laura’s swirling, tumultuous, overwhelming emotions. As the play unfolds, a more or less perfect balance is struck between the slow, sweet heartbreak of Alec and Laura’s affair, the almost cartoonish campiness of the action in the café, the mundane normalcy of Laura’s home life, the multimedia effects that seamlessly bind the nostalgic film experience with the imaginative stage experience, and the exquisite music that holds it all together.
It’s hard to ask for more in a play. Brief Encounter is what theater is all about—or should be.
Brief Encounter continues at The Guthrie Theater through April 3 .
Photo: Annette McLaughlin (left) and Beverly Rudd.