There was definitely a draft. The audience, squashed in beside the entrance to the old gents toilets, kept their coats firmly on. We were sitting in the disused Aldwych Underground station, reopened for a production of the Noël Coward play, Still Life. The play was the inspiration for Brief Encounter, David Lean's classic film about forbidden love in a railway café. The venue was certainly apt, even the draft added to the atmosphere. Aldwych may only have closed in 1994, but its decor has never made it past 1960. The original wooden ticket-office and telephone booths are still there. Green tiles cover half of the walls, while paint peels gently from the other half.
It's the kind of place where a girl might expect to have a brief encounter with an attractive stranger. The wind could easily whip up a speck of dirt from the grubby floor into your eye; a dashing young man might well come to your aid; who knows where it might lead? But those in the audience hoping for a rerun of the 1946 film were to be disappointed. Indeed, the play's director and producer, Rebecca McCutcheon, told me that she had banned her cast members from watching it during the rehearsal period.
The famous adulterous love story between Alec and Laura was still there, of course. But Coward's play, unlike David Lean's film, weaves their terribly middle-class, terribly proper affair with other love stories. There's the romance between Myrtle, who runs the tearoom at Milford Junction station, where the play is set, and Albert, the station manager. There are also sparks flying between Beryl, the waitress, and her beau. Theirs is a working-class, slap-and-tickle kind of love.
The play revelled in this romantic class divide. Sarah Thom (Myrtle) and Robert Goodale (Albert) played to the audience's appetite for slapstick, dropping cakes and vibrating to the sound of passing trains. There was even some bottom-slapping. Meanwhile, at a table on the other side of the tearoom, Dickon Edwards (Alec) and Helen Laing (Laura) got down to some serious soul-searching, frustrated nibbling at teacakes, and declarations of undying love.
Theirs was certainly the harder task. On celluloid, sexual chemistry can be helped along a little with editing and violin music. On stage, a draught whipping around their ankles, Alec and Laura's romance never really heated up. At their final parting, there was not a moist eye in the house.
But perhaps that was not the point. This was not Brief Encounter. In the Aldwych Underground station that night, the really steamy romance was not Alec and Laura's, but Myrtle and Albert's. At least this production almost succeeded in dragging Still Life out of the classic film's shadow.
To 9 May (020-8299 2542)
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