We can't go on meeting like this

Brief Encounter | Lyric Shaftesbury, London
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The Independent Culture

Does memory play me false, or did Richard Burton and Sophia Loren once star in a TV remake of Brief Encounter? It was sublime miscasting if they did, a bit like hiring Terry and June to play Jackie and Aristotle Onassis. Dick and Soph reek of private jets, not suburban train lines, and this Noël Coward piece depends upon people who can raise middle-class ordinariness to the heights of heroism.

Does memory play me false, or did Richard Burton and Sophia Loren once star in a TV remake of Brief Encounter? It was sublime miscasting if they did, a bit like hiring Terry and June to play Jackie and Aristotle Onassis. Dick and Soph reek of private jets, not suburban train lines, and this Noël Coward piece depends upon people who can raise middle-class ordinariness to the heights of heroism.

Mind you, it takes a certain intrepidity to even think of remounting the classic weepie, as director Roger Redfarn has now done in a stage adaptation by Andrew Taylor. Most theatre-going folk are, you'd have supposed, precisely the kind of people who could perform the David Lean movie frame-by-frame at the drop of one of Myrtle Bagot's famed Banbury buns. And yet, the movie does have stage origins: the screenplay was based on Still Life, one of the mini-dramas in Tonight At 8.30. In that earlier version, we're left to deduce the rest of their story from the couple's various meetings and partings in the railway refreshment room, and it's implied that, unlike in the epically chaste film, the pair do manage to fit in in a few carnal trysts at the friend's flat before he catches them at it and kills lust dead with the sanctimonious line: "I'm not angry, just disappointed".

Taylor's adaptation is a pathetic pick'n'mix of the bits of the film and play, and expertly manages to get the worst of both worlds.

From the moment the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto strikes up and Jenny Seagrove's Laura begins her peculiarly dead and unaffecting voice-over narration, you realise that what works on screen can seem like parodic sabotage when applied to the stage. Indeed, as you watch the revolve work overtime to take us to Laura's chintzy home and the couple's various outside haunts, the thought strikes you that Brief Encounter would make a brilliant project for Desmond Oliver Dingle and his sidekick Raymond Box in the National Theatre of Brent. This duo have already brought us the Charles and Diana story. If they were to turn their attention to Alec and Laura, the result could not, believe me, be more bizarre than the version Redfarn presents here.

Seagrove moves through the show with the wan guardedness of someone coping with a stomach bug. As her doctor lover, Christopher Cazenove is barely recognisable as the figure once employed by Aaron Spelling on Dynasty: the Eighties gloss has turned to unplumbable blandness. This Alec is so hectically sincere and solicitous towards Laura, you reckon that must be the secret of his bedside manner. Rather than stay in his vicinity, even a chronic patient would gladly take up his bed and walk. Never for a moment do this pair bring a lump to the throat, and watching Brief Encounter without wanting to cry is like taking snuff with wanting to sneeze.

It's left to the supporting players to give the proceedings a bit of pep. Elizabeth Powers is wonderfully funny as Myrtle "now look at me Banburys - all over the floor" Bagot, the refreshment room manageress much prone to attacks of "refainement". Her fluting elocution on the recurrent line "cakes or pastry?" is one of the few joys this misconceived, camp collector's item of an evening has to offer.

Booking to 4 Nov (020-7494 5045)

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