For The Love of Love
By Christopher Moore, Broadway Magazine
There is no experience like love at first sight. The breathtakingly beautiful and artfully cheeky new Broadway musical “Brief Encounter” will undoubtedly invoke comparisons to other productions (Broadway’s “The 39 Steps”) or “Brief Encounter”’s original source material (Noel Coward’s play and screenplay for David Lean’s film). Do not be deceived—”Brief Encounter” is a wholly singular Broadway creation and one of the most delightfully insightful and pleasurably moving productions in recent memory. For the record, the show is superior to the aforementioned comparisons and likely to most other comparisons that might be made. Adapted and directed by Emma Rice and staged by Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre, “Brief Encounter” is pure magic.
The story of an illicit affair in England between two ordinary people in 1938, the plot is relatively simple. The romance between Alec and Laura plays out over a relatively short amount of time, primarily in a London train station. Rich with crashing waves, swelling music, rushing locomotives, roses, and row boats on lakes, the show embraces the Romantic nomenclature with unashamed zeal as the central characters meet and fall in love.
With outstanding performances by Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock as the romantic leads, the entire production remains grounded in a genuine truth, showing a deep understanding of both the exhilaration and complication of the characters’ predicament. With stiff upper lips but trembling lower ones, they engage in a brief romance that takes both away from their ordinary lives and up to the stars as they drink champagne and swing from the chandeliers (literally). While the outcome of the affair is known to anyone familiar with the film, I won’t disclose the ending here.
Incorporating the songs of Noel Coward into this adaption of his one-act and screenplay, Emma Rice has revealed Noel Coward’s perceptive gift for understanding romance in all its variations. With brilliant musical arrangements by Stu Barker recalling the Gypsy jazz feel of Django Reinhardt, Coward’s lyrics in this production feel remarkably fresh. Like the entire production itself, the arrangements remove the enduring gadfly façade Noel Coward cultivated to reveal Coward as an artist with a true poet’s insight when it comes to matters of the heart. This is the first Coward production on Broadway where the quaint presence of Noel Coward The Man does not hover and smother the work of Noel Coward The Artist.
Weaving his songs craftily into the narrative, Broadway’s “Brief Encounter” also echoes the experience of watching the television films of Dennis Potter—where everyday characters burst out into musical production numbers. However, this new musical (and it is indeed a musical and unarguably new), balances it’s interludes of song and story perfectly. The music hall setting, lush projections, innovative production, and perfect characterizations from a gifted ensemble all combine to create an evening of extraordinary theatre. Comedy and tragedy harmonize perfectly throughout the production.
“Brief Encounter” is more Berthold Brecht than Oscar Wilde. On one level the production seems to embrace the principle’s of the Aesthetic Movement offering bright colors with some cheeky fun; but ultimately the show achieves the impact of Brecht’s alienation effect. The stage mechanics are exposed (sometimes for fun, sometimes not) and the projection design by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington is inspired. In fact, theatre fans are sure to delight in the production’s ability to show the virtue of live performance versus the flat two-dimensions of the movie screen in real time. It is the movies that are void of love and life, not the stage.
The theatrical flair of the production may delight and awe the audience, but the distancing merely serves to bring us closer to the varied themes explored in Coward’s deceptively simple story. The show will take your breath away and make your pulse race; but you’ll think about it after the tears dry and your smile fades. Simply put, Emma Rice has given Noel Coward a new theatrical triumph.