Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

brief encounter head

Charlotte Crowe as Beryl and Ros Davies as Myrtle. Pictures: Roy Palmer

Brief Encounter

Hall Green Little Theatre


HATS off to director Edward James Stokes for making some sense of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter.

Some plays you look forward to seeing, others less so, and this adaptation by Emma Rice, falls into the latter category.

It often comes out as a confused muddle, never quite sure whether to be a musical or a romantic drama or even a comedy and never really convincing whichever path it happens to be lost along at the time.

Stokes has taken the piece by the scruff of the neck and given us all three as separate vignettes with a touch of music hall with some of the songs – and shell footlights – a musical with the more poignant songs, a comedy set around the slap and tickle shenanigans in the tea rooms of the railway station, and perhaps, ironically, least effective 75 years on, the adulterous romance which was the cornerstone of tAlec and Laurahe 1945 iconic film starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson.

The film was set in 1938 and was based upon Coward’s 1936 one act play Still Life, and, although the Second World War had changed perceptions of many things, a married woman carrying on with a married man, a double betrayal, was still a no no . . . which gave the film, and play, a fascination all of its own. We have always taken a gleeful delight in forbidden fruits.

These days, the fruits are on supermarket shelves though, affairs are commonplace and bread and butter daily fodder to celebrity pages, so any hint of scandal in the doomed romance of housewife Lauren Jesson and doctor Alec Harvey in Coward’s play no longer raises an eyebrow – not even a twitch.

Al McCoughey as Dr Alec Harvey and Laura Jesson as Lauren Breslin

Not that Lauren Breslin and Al McCaughey as the ill-fated lovers don’t give it all they have got. Breslin gives us a fanciable, middle class housewife living in a secure, comfortable, happy but dull marriage and we can feel her pain and heartache as she agonises about her ever increasing drift into infidelity.

McCaughey produces a more idealistic partner in the doctor. We find out little of his wife and children and, to be honest, he is a bit wet, hardly a dashing, sweep-you-off-your-feet Romeo, although he is the one who attempts to take their fledgling relationship to a more carnal level, borrowing a friend’s flat for an evening when one could assume he was not intending to play Scrabble.

It is a decision which turns into disaster when the friend returns home early before Cupid has even had time to get his bow out, the only that has happened is it has made Lauren question the whole affair as she runs down the back stairs as a lady of the night.

The language, and indeed romance, has a distinctly period feel, as it should of course, but it can seem a little dated these days, so Stokes has lifted the whole production by giving a more prominent role to the supposedly supporting characters who populate the railway station led by Myrtle Bagot, upstanding manageress of the tea rooms.

Ros Davies makes her a larger than life character full of fun, one moment strict and unmoving, refusing to serve drinks out of hours to two soldiers, then, moments later, serving herself brandy to get over the kerfuffle.

She has her own romance going on with ticket inspector Albert, who spends much of his day flirting and cadging tea from Myrtle – and Albert is happy as Larry as he is on a promise for a night at the pictures – if he behaves himself. Some chance!

Stokes himself plays fun loving Albert, as well as Lauren’s dull husband Fred and the rather shocked friend Stephen whose flat Alec borrows. To his credit only the programme gives away it is the same actor.

Another budding romance is between the station cake and refreshment seller Stanley, with his tray, and Beryl, the naïve young girl who works for Mrs Bagot in the tea rooms.

Matt Ludlam has the cheeky chappie air of the flirting Stanley just right while Charlotte Crowe’s Beryl brings a quiet innocence to the role.

There is also a lovely cameo appearance by Linda Neale as Dolly, a rather up-market friend, who spots Lauren and Alec as the affair is ending and quickly spots what has been going on and she also appears with Ros Davies as a pair of nosy friends, Mary and Hermione, who come across our adulterous lovers.

It could have been an embarrassing moment for Lauren but a rather dull one for the audience but it is turned into a comedy gem by giving the pair a nice set of eccentricities and adding a pair of tiny fluffy dogs to proceedings. Still awkward for aura but at least we enjoyed it.

The three couples provide clear contrasts with Albert and Myrtle and their more mature years not exactly newcomers to the courting game but free of any ties to play again, while Stanley and Beryl are in loves’ first bloom. And between them we have Lauren and Alec, intense, full of angst, and doomed from the start.

There are also some lovely touches of humour scattered through the production such as Crowe, again, as a waitress with a synchronised serving and clearing when Lauren and Alec meet in a restaurant, or the pop of a champagne cork long enough after the waiter had removed it to garner a laugh as our lovers meet in a hotel, or the piano continuing to play after Stanley, as the pianist stands up to sing with Beryl.

Beryl with cake and confectionery seller Stanley, played by Matt Ludlam

The confidence of the singing, incidentally, grew as the play went on with Coward songs such as Mad About the Boy, Go Slow Johnny and I’ll See You Again – the latter reprised in a recording by Coward himself towards he end.

The set, designed by Stokes, looks unpromising at curtain up, nothing like the Carnforth railway station tea rooms of the film, but once we are underway it works well.

The rough steps at either side connected at the back are the old fashioned footbridge between the up and down lines at every station while between them is the tea room, with a piano as the counter. It had a period feel as did the excellent costumes, most particularly, so I was told, by the 1930’s style slip!

On the technical side Roger Codd and Dean Taylor did an excellent job on sound with cues for endless bells, whistles, trains . . . champagne corks . . . and Tom Brookes’ recorded music to contend with while Roy Palmer, Simon Nall and Paul Holtom had passing trains, dramatic spots and changing scenes to play with on lights, along with steam from passing trains to boot. The team also produced splendid opening a closing cinema titles.

All in all a very good production which shows why the Kneehigh production was such as success in the West End and on Broadway. To 12-06-16

Roger Clarke


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