Brief Encounter

Birmingham Rep


It takes great skill to create a classic drama out of ordinary lives where not a lot happens and even an illicit love affair dies unconsummated, yet David Lean’s 1945 film is perhaps Noël Coward’s best-known work, certainly the one seen by most people, and high on any list of the greatest movies of all time.

Emma Rice’s adaptation remains true to the film, itself an adaptation of Coward’s 1936 one act play Still Lives, yet, interspersed with David Lean’s romantic drama, are episodes of almost Ealing comedy with the porters and tearoom staff working at the main railway station setting.

The result is a love story and a comedy intertwined around each other, four tales in parallel.

The stage version premiered at the Rep in 2007 and returns with a new production which shows the skill of both Rice and Coward in holding an audience for 90 minutes with a relationship where nothing happens but anguish.

Set in 1938 we see two sides of life in pre-war Britain illustrated in four relationships. We have Laura, played in a delightfully clipped accent and prim and proper manner by Isobel Pollen and her husband Fred, a rather homely sort of chap, played by Dean Nolan, a man who might have father two children but who one suspects now sees sex as a three letter crossword clue – crosswords appearing to be his main interest.

Then there is Myrtle Bagot, played in a wonderfully affected accent of those wot try to be posh by Lucy Thackeray, who runs the station refreshment room – remember those? She has a relationship which apparently involves some slap and tickle – remember when it was called that? – with the porter Albert, who is a much more enthusiastic would-be lover-boy this time from the no longer dour Dean Nolan.

laura and alec

Isabel Pollen as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as Alec

Then there is Beryl, pronounced Beryal by Mrs Bagot, the refreshment room helper who has the most innocent of lovey dovey relationships with Stanley, who sells refreshment room wares from a tray on the platform.

It is a wonderfully inventive performance from Beverly Rudd as the naïve and none too bright Beryl, popping up as well as a fearsome Scottish waitress and up market women, the last all feathers and mouth, providing a telling litany of gossip about divorces and affairs as she disrupts the final farewells of Laura and Alec.

Jos Slovick is a cheeky Stanley in the days when stealing a kiss was seen as a conquest but he is also there as a musician on pretty well every string instrument from ukulele to double bass in the on stage band.

He also sings a lovely haunting version of Coward’s Go Slow Johnny, one of several Coward songs in the production including the well known Mad About The Boy and A Room With a View.

The final relationship is between Laura and Dr Alec Harvey, the GP who, by chance, is on hand to remove a piece of grit from Laura’s eye in the refreshment room. Jim Sturgeon slowly changes from the matter of fact, glad to help doc to the desperate lover threatening two marriages, leaving Laura as perhaps the moral heroine.

His simple medical intervention grows into a raging passionate relationship. Both are married, both have children, both are in love, but that, despite his efforts, is as far as it goes. A meeting in the flat of Alec’s friend Stephen – Nolan again – is the nearest they get to sex but that turns into a rather sordid affair when Stephen returns early and Laura flees in a mix of fear and shame down the back stairs.

There are perhaps social reasons why Coward never allowed the love affair to be consummated. His main market was the middle classes who, in 1938, when Brief Encounter was set – remember the play was from 1936 - saw themselves as the moral backbone of Britain.

To have allowed adultery might well have turned sympathy for Laura and her dilemma into hostility while, in 1945, just after a war when relationships had been in turmoil with men away fighting and life on a nightly knife edge, the decision of Laura to end the relationship before it crossed a moral line, perhaps spoke of a return to normality, leaving what happened in the war behind.

Rice has introduced some clever touches in her direction, little actions that bring laughs, or create characters all helped by a flexible set from Neil Murray. She cleverly blends the laughs and comedy with the intense developing relationship, keeping the two separate even though they are side by side.

A back projection at the rear of the stage – passion being a stormy sea – provides us with settings with such things as menus – remember the Kardomah – the station, Laura and Alex in a rowing boat, trains and the station. Other screens provide a stage long passing boat train or a very clever screen of vertical blinds allowing actors to pass through and suddenly appear on screen. Projection design from Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington.

There is good support from the onstage band, musical director Stu Barker, with a musical score which enhances what is a most entertaining production. Well acted, well directed and well worth seeing. To 17-02-18

Roger Clarke


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