Brief Encounter, Empire Cinema, Haymarket, London, review: It comes across as dated rather than romantic

This award-winning Kneehigh production returns to the West End after 10 years, having toured the globe and triumphing on Broadway

Kaleem Aftab@aftabamon
Thursday 15 March 2018 12:06
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Isabel Pollen as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as her lover Alec in ‘Brief Encounter’ at Empire Cinema, Haymarket
Isabel Pollen as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as her lover Alec in ‘Brief Encounter’ at Empire Cinema, Haymarket

The symbiotic relationship between cinema and theatre was once again highlighted when Noel Coward changed the name of his play Still Life to Brief Encounter after the success of the 1945 David Lean film. The movie classic has given this affair an enduring appeal in ways that a successful play from the era could not, and it’s this relationship between film and stage that is being explored in this revival of Kneehigh Production of Brief Encounter, which a decade ago proved to be such a hit that it crossed the Atlantic and was acclaimed by Broadway.

When Emma Rice first adapted the play a decade ago, she celebrated the enduring power and appeal of movies. The changes she has made to that production for this outing demonstrate how theatre can be more dynamic and change over the years to match the times. It’s shorter than it was, there is no interval, the songs have changed, but even so, Rice hasn’t been brave enough and still cowers to the original text when it demands a radical overhaul, as by failing to dramatically alter the production it comes across as dated rather than romantic.

Times change and so does our notion of a romance and what is and not an acceptable partnership between two people. So while an affair between two married people is still unacceptable to most, Rice weights this play so that it’s the woman, Laura (Isabel Pollen), whose home life we see, whilst the home life of her lover, Alec (Jim Sturgeon) remains a complete mystery. Today this seems to fall into the trap of believing the audience will only have sympathy with a woman having an affair if we see what a dimwit her husband is, and the theatrical nature of motherhood bringing up kids no smarter than puppets. A braver updating may have given another perspective.

When I saw the play a decade ago I was blown away by the staging, now it also feels – as often happens with new updates – that everyone else has moved on at a much faster pace leaving this staging behind. The mix of screen images juxtaposed with what’s happening on stage feels as old as the costumes and the piano in the railway café setting. The musicians on stage seem to play to add pathos to scenes that don’t need more melodrama and the joyfully energetic side characters are so broadly comic that the tonal shifts between their laughter and the strained love of the principal protagonists have little balance. Like failed lovers returning for past glories, this production struggles to reignite the flame.

​Until 2 September (briefencounterwestend.com)

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