Brief Encounter is a 1945 film about British suburban life, centring on Laura, a married woman with children, whose conventional life becomes increasingly complicated because of a chance meeting at a railway station with a stranger, Alec. They inadvertently but quickly progress to an emotional love affair, which brings about unexpected consequences.
The film starred Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as Laura and Alec. The screenplay was by Noël Coward, based on his one-act play Still Life. The film is also known for its use of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The stage adaptation is by Emma Rice.
Director Lynne Smith had told the Abingdon Herald that ‘very few groups ... treat this play with the delicacy and sympathy of the period that it deserves.’ – courageous words, indeed. I sat down to enjoy what was described as a ‘must-see’.
And, in the end, she was right. ADC has produced an inventive and well-staged production.
Michael Ward has taken his inspiration from Emma Rice’s original production for the Kneehigh company, and replicates their huge onstage screen and their use of still, and moving, picture images to underline and illuminate the plot and setting, even (as with Kneehigh) at times featuring the lead actors in those onscreen images. Very clever audio visual effects on a huge screen which retracts to reveal many of the scenes. It was one of the most innovative things I’ve seen attempted by any amdram group and it was delivered very effectively indeed.
The cast is well-costumed for the period, and the same attention has been paid to stage props – particularly in the station buffet. Apart from the big screen, the Unicorn’s stage has been used cleverly to allow easy movements on and off by the cast, and to provide space for a very effective ‘passing train’ lighting effect.
At the core of the show (as in the film), are the characters of Laura and Alec. Laura King and Terry Atkinson, respectively, give well-paced, subtle and very moving performances as the stricken lovers. Their relationship, and their portrayal of it, is the heart and soul of the show. They make excellent use of silence, too, to draw us in to their tale, and to allow us to empathise with their situation.
Rice also chose to write up the rather easier-going and more amiable relationships between two other couples, all of whom work at the railway station. I expect the intention was to point up the stiff, buttoned-down, middle class shufflings of Laura and Alec; but it’s too easy – the others are not (as far as we know) married couples and so aren’t shackled by circumstances, social stigma, and guilt.
Even so, the play benefits from the comic relief, and sweetness, that they provide. There is some nice interplay between the buffet manageress, her waitress assistant and the station manager/porter(?). These are engagingly played by Lorna Stevenson Walker, Rebecca Peberdy and Martin Eggelston with good support from Dave Cassar as Stanley. There was some very nicely observed interplay between these characters which helped to bring the buffet to life and to provide an amusing counterpoint to ‘Romeo & Juliet’.
Like the film, the production makes good use of the Rachmaninoff Concerto; this is still a brilliant theme for this doomed affair – haunting and tragic.
The ending of the play is particularly poignant, when Lin Crowley’s Dolly Messiter cheerily and inadvertently bursts in on the couple’s last few minutes and tramples unknowingly on their final farewell. The atmosphere in that scene was excellent.
The adaptation uses songs, and dance, in between some scenes. I’m not convinced they were a good choice by Emma Rice.
ADC had to use them, of course, because they were a part of the published script. They are delivered with commendable enthusiasm and aplomb by the cast but - like Dolly Messiter - they keep breaking the tissue-like fabric of the central romance. This was particularly so (for me) when Alec sang … up to that point he and Laura had been ‘above’ the alienation devices permitted to many of the supporting cast, and it seemed slightly out of place.
They did not, however, detract from my enjoyment of a good production. Director Lynne Smith paces her show well, and there are no weak links in her cast – each person plays their part in the story well. John Hawkins lends a quiet dignity to Laura’s husband, and he’s also good as the affronted apartment owner. Geraldine Hodson and Maria Crocker create the right level of social tension when they come across Laura and Alec’s clandestine restaurant meeting.
Lynne’s decision to use the clipped WW2 English accents (specifically for the central pair) also underlines the straightjacketed, rule-bound lives led by the central tragic couple and adds to the feeling of foreboding for this relationship which we, the audience, know from the start is doomed. I saw a little of the Kneehigh Laura and Alec on Youtube -- and I thought the ADC ones did the accents better, and gave much more believable, and less theatrical, performances.
It was sold out on the Wednesday when I saw it, and I think the rest of the run was sold out too. Well deserved, Abingdon Drama Club – a fine show.
Stephen Briggs - 8/3/2017