Brief Encounter, Cinema on the Haymarket, London
An English Tragedy, Palace, Watford
Ring Round the Moon, Playhouse, London

A fine romance: when the lights go down

the fun really starts

the fun really starts

Theatre

Kate

Bassett

Moving pictures were once expected to kill off fusty old stage plays. Well, here's a turnabout. The crowd-pulling physical theatre troupe, Kneehigh, have now taken over a cinema off Piccadilly Circus.

You might momentarily wonder if you are in fact at the flicks, circa 1945, when you fetch up at director Emma Rice's reworking of Brief Encounter, the classic Noel Coward screenplay. Ushers in jaunty pillbox hats bustle down the aisles, ensuring you're snug in your red-plush seats and, as the lights dim, the credits roll on the big screen in crackly, vintage monochrome.

Notwithstanding, you'll surely rumble that this is to be multimedia fun as the ushers swish their torches around, like a DIY spoof of Twentieth Century Fox's searchlights. Then, Coward's romantic protagonists, Alec and Laura – the extramarital sweethearts who yearn to break free of middle-class respectability – jump up from the front row. She slips through a slit in the screen, magically materialising in the picture.

Next the screen flies up to reveal a wide stage, and Rice's theatrical vision of the railway station, where the trysts begin and end, is far more playful and dreamlike than in the movie. The ushers have turned into porters, lolling on the steps of a girdered bridge and doubling as a jazz band.

The station café's tables are scattered among mounds of coal, and the counter is, surreally, the piano from Laura's suburban home (design by Neil Murray). There's a wonderful expressionistic moment when Tristan Sturrock's intent Alec and Naomi Frederick's repressed, tweedy Laura are first smitten. Having exchanged a little small-talk on the platform, they turn to walk away but, breathtakingly, fall backwards as if felled by a wave.

Caught in the arms of other passing actors, they flip over in mid-air and upright again, heading off in a frightfully British way as if nothing had happened. Later, when unspoken desires and despair surge through them, their bodies arc over the teashop chairs while grey ocean breakers – projected on the far wall – curl and crash.

Some disappointments arise, for Kneehigh fans as well as for these thwarted lovers. The physical expressionism oddly peters out – a would-be climax, swinging from two chandeliers is peculiarly clumsy. The poignancy of the central love story is diluted too as the affairs of the lower-class characters are expanded into not-so-brief encounters, often in the style of music-hall routines.

Yet the overall result is charmingly buoyant, with numerous inspired touches. Amanda Lawrence is a fabulously funny clown as the gawky waitress, Beryl – all knobbly knees and lusty cravings. Indeed, everyone's comic timing is impeccable. Stu Barker's musical arrangements – with sultry Latin rhythms creeping in – are always a delight. Though some film aficionados might wish Rice were more doggedly faithful to the original, all the song lyrics are Coward's own, interwoven with dialogue from the screenplay and also his earlier stage version. Moreover, the fact that Rice is a liberated woman – inventively retelling this love story as if it's a popular folk tale – has its own kind of romantic daring.

The week's other two shows were peculiarly fusty with British Theatre seemingly trapped in some 1940s time warp. The septuagenarian writer Ronald Harwood has just won a Bafta for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly but, alas, his latest stage biodrama is structurally creaky.

The subject of An English Tragedy is historically interesting per se: the arrest and hanging, in 1945, of John Amery, an ex-cabinet minister's delinquent son accused of high treason for broadcasting Nazi propaganda, like Lord Haw-Haw, and recruiting British PoWs to fight the Soviets.

Jeremy Child and Diana Hardcastle give stalwart performances as Leo and Bryddie – John's pater and mater – both trying to keep a stiff upper lip but exploding with guilt and grief. There's also the twist that John's loathsome anti-Semitism and ultimate self-destruction may have been rooted in patricidal jealousy – his father being covertly Jewish.

However, Di Trevis's cast is stuck on a lumpen set – a giant swastika designed by Ralph Koltai – while John's backstory is churned out, with a shrink and a jailer serving as near-redundant feeds. Richard Goulding's unstable, brattish and flamboyantly bisexual John is a welter of mannerisms: a permanently limp-wristed, tedious motor-mouth. What's most disturbing – whether you take it as depressingly authentic or a dramatic omission – is that no one counters his racist slurs.

Lastly, we have Sean Mathias's West End revival of Ring Round the Moon. Jean Anouilh's high-society satire, from 1947, almost bored me rigid in the first half, as sour, sniffy aristocrats, rich industrialists and their swanky unfaithful mistresses shuttle in and out of a grand conservatory.

A ball is planned, with twin brothers and a Cinderella-style hired impostor causing confusions of identity. The female vamps are merely infuriating caricatures, complete with cigarette holders held aloft. If I had heard one more gratingly forced cut-glass accent I would have been forced to scream.

Only Peter Eyre, as the long-suffering butler, has a more soothingly silky voice, and only Angela Thorne, as the chateau's grand dame, is wittily snooty. Christopher Fry's perfumed translation of French one-liners mainly comes across as lame.

No one has much psychological depth or real edge. The games played promise to become mind-bendingly Pirandellian, but never do.

In spite of intimations that the callous and the romantic twin might be flipsides of the same man, JJ Feild (playing both) does little more than skim the surface. Mathias's only concept is to dress the characters up Dior-style haute couture, dropping Anouilh's belle époque setting. Ah well, at least Anouilh rises to one memorably iconic scene when the hired Cinderella (Fiona Button's Isabelle) and the market-controlling tycoon, Messerschmann (Leigh Lawson), rip up stacks of bank notes in a fit of idealistic glee. Scorn-ing affluenza, they willingly almost spark a Great Depression.

'Brief Encounter' (0871 230 1562) to 22 June; 'An English Tragedy' (01923 225671) to 8 March; 'Ring Round the Moon' (0870 040 0046) booking to 24 May

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