England. 1938. A railway station. A gust of wind. A speck of grit flies into a woman’s eye. These are the chain of events which instigate a genuine connection between two people, who happen to be married to others. This love is unexpected and they embark on a passionate, if intensely guarded affair, meeting every Thursday in the cafe where they met. This comes from the pen of Noel Coward, first as the one act play Still Life, part of the ten play cycle Life at 8:30 and later as the Oscar nominated classic Brief Encounter directed by David Lean. It’s an overwhelming exercise in restraint, no matter the incarnation.
This new stage incarnation of Brief Encounter now onstage at Studio 54 is, in short, an Anglophile’s dream. English vernacular, customs, emotional repression, the confines of station and class are all displayed onstage in ways both sublime and surreal. The heart of the story is this pained affair between the couple. Still waters run deep, and director Emma Rice has dipped into a bag of theatrical tricks to bring this story of restraint to unexpected and fanciful heights, finding ways of expressing the passion deep beneath the surface. The production, conceived and written by Rice (combining elements from both Still Life and Brief Encounter) originated at Kneehigh Theatre in Leeds, England and enjoyed success in the West End, St Ann’s Warehouse and the Guthrie before arriving on Broadway, with much of its cast intact.
One of the most impressive elements of Rice’s direction is the absolute sincerity given to the central relationship. Melodramatic material, especially from this bygone era, can easily be seen and played as camp or arch, but the characters are given great humanity by Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland. Instead of just putting Brief Encounter onstage, this work expands much of story with amusing meta-theatrics, clever projections and some other surprises which I won’t spoil here. In essence, it becomes part musical, part 39 Steps and part devastating. Contrasting comic relief is supplied by the stellar supporting cast, who play various roles as well as instruments in the onstage band. Annette McLaughlin is a production highlight as Myrtle, the cafe proprietress. Tall, lithe and funny, the production gives her the opportunity to show that there is practically nothing she can’t do. Dorothy Atkinson scores big laughs as her assistant Myrtle. Props also to ensemble member Damon Daunno, who sings much of the show’s music before, during and after the show.
One of the most important elements, aside from the projections, is the use of Noel Coward’s songs to underscore and heighten particular moments throughout. I was jarred by a couple of anachronistic moments; the song sung in 50s rock and roll style and a reference to Marlon Brando don’t sit well with something set in 1938. But overall, the result adds to the show’s charm. The stage show wisely reprises Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2, used to popular effect in the 1945 film. While we’re on the subject, will someone please record a cast album? This is one play with music I would love to listen to.
I have one considerable reservation regarding the venue: the show should be in a smaller house. If you’re in the orchestra yes, I can see how one can get easily immersed. However, up in the mezzanine there was no audience interaction, no decor, no cucumber sandwiches; absolutely nothing to bring us into the atmosphere of the play. We couldn’t hear the band singing in the aisles pre-show, which seems to be a big part of the experience if you’re seated below. We saw them going from section to section, but no matter how hard we strained we couldn’t hear them until the show was about to start. (And I would just shave about five minutes from the running time, but that’s another minor quibble).
However, once the show gets started, it’s hard not to get swept away. And if you’re an old Anglophile like myself, you’ll find yourself quite taken. One last thing – when the play is over, head to the orchestra section bar. The cast heads to the back of the house for a post-show performance and I think you’ll want to stick around. (And the leggy McLaughlin is also on hand to serve sandwiches). The show is presented by Roundabout as a limited engagement, currently scheduled to close December 5.