This review originally appeared in issue 121 of The Pembrokeshire Herald, published 23 September 2015
“I’m a happily married woman. Or rather I was until a few weeks ago. This is my whole world and it’s enough, or rather it was until a few weeks ago”
It all started “just through me getting a little piece in my eye” at Milford Junction railway station. Brief Encounter is a romantic drama set in 1940s Britain, during World War II. The action centres around the aforementioned railway station where the two main characters, middle class housewife Laura Jesson and respectable doctor, Alec Harvey, have a chance meeting. Although both characters are married to other people, there is a strong connection between them, and after a short while, they become more than friends. In time, they realise they must face the harsh reality that – according to the social codes of the time, when divorce was seen as scandalous and could ruin a woman’s reputation – their love affair is not only painful, but unacceptable and impossible. Brief Encounter traces the steps of this delicately managed, liasion from beginning to end, from release to agony and despair.
Its writer, the playwright, wit and composer Noel Coward, was a gay man at a time when open expressions of homosexual love were not only unacceptable according to the morals of the time but also a criminal offence. He understood the nature of forbidden love. This is why he is able to portray this romance with such empathy and tenderness.
The play originates from Noel Coward’s one-act Still Life, which Coward was prompted into developing into a feature film after a successful tour. This became Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean, which premiered in Britain in 1946 and went on to become synonymous with a certain kind of great British romance and one of the best loved romantic dramas of the twentieth century.
In bringing Coward’s great British romance to the stage, the Torch Theatre Company have drawn heavily for inspiration from Kneehigh Theatre’s recent stage revival, which is a composite of the screenplay and Coward’s original play Still Life, and expands greatly upon the source material in order to bring to the stage a truly immersive experience that adds extra colour and dimensions to Coward’s love story.
Yes, this a true multimedia experience, with film footage integrated into the live action through ingenious use of back projection and a silver screen, and several of Noel Coward’s popular songs of the day worked into the script not unlike a West End musical. The stage set itself, is an innovative composite setting, which amalgamates various locations (railway refreshment room, a lake, a living room, a café) in a manner that complements the play’s blending of a variety of media – quite appropriate given that the production is a hybrid of stage play and film screenplay. It also allows the action to switch scenes with a televisual fluidity, complete with segues and low-lighting cross-fades.
At times the production ventures into the realms of the fantastical, with moments of intense passion signalled by brief, impressionistic interludes where the characters flail as if thrown across the sea against stock footage of crashing waves – this presumably represents our lovers consumed by the raging tides of passion threatening to burst out onto the surface of this tightly controlled romance, but (to this audience member, at least) evoking memories of how, in the days of restrictive censorship, filmmakers would cut, at moments of high passion, to heavily symbolic, Freudian imagery of crashing waves, firework explosions and steam trains!
As star-crossed lovers Alec and Laura, Matt Wilman and Laura Penneycard skilfully evoke the mores and characteristics of their time and social strata – complete with middle upper class, cut-glass accents – without it feeling like a spoof, fully embodying the beating heart and emotional conflict beneath the stuffy tweed and social conventions of their class and time, and they’re ably supported by a true ensemble cast, whose cast (including Torch regulars Ollie Wood, Liam Tobin and Lloyd Grayshon) double up in various roles, including much of the supporting cast of railway station staff.
In the play, time to shine is also given to the budding romances between two pairs – charlady Mrs Bagot and porter Albert, and waitress Beryl and cake-seller Stanley. The goings-on of the working class characters provide an effective contrast to Alec and Laura’s clandestine romance and show the different forms of romance that can take place: unlike the main characters, both couples are free to pursue their affairs, are less stifled by the social mores of the middle class, and the innocent vivaciousness of Beryl and Stanley’s corny flirtation provides an effective contrast to the stiff upper lips and simmering passions of Alec and Laura’s illicit affair.
It is the scenes with the railway station staff that provide much of the tension release, offering light relief from the fatal intensity of Alec and Laura’s tightly controlled, delicate romance. At times it veers into the realms of vaudeville – there are moments of high farce, including a homage to Victoria Wood and Julie Walters’ “Two Soups” sketch that met with familiar laughter from the audience – not to mention stage musical, as many of Noel Coward’s songs (eg A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square) are performed ‘in character’ by the supporting cast, ranging from solo performances to full-on numbers, complete with a pit band straight out of music hall or the Threepenny Opera.
The effect is not unlike that of the great television playwright Dennis Potter’s acclaimed serial Pennies From Heaven, which used the popular songs of the period to act as a kind of running commentary on the situation and the characters’ feelings, not unlike a modern-day Greek chorus.
These crazy, tonal twists from barely repressed, passionate romance and a climactic moment of near-suicide to broad comedy and song & dance might not to be to the taste of purists who hold the simmering passions and monochromatic textures of David Lean’s classic movie dear to their hearts (the “selkie” interludes with the crashing waves, too, may have been a bit too ‘experimental theatre’ for conservative theatregoers, if such a breed exists), but it does well to prove that all human life is present and correct in this interpretation of Coward’s world, and to remind oneself that, while one can be swept away by the grandeur and passion of a high octane affair, life and romance itself is full of crazy, tonal twists!
By the close of the play, ending wordlessly as Laura pounds out the grand, sweeping, romantic theme of Rachmaninoff at the piano, one feels like one has been carried away with our ill-fated pair through the highs and lows a relationship from beginning to end in a handful of hours, feeling both drained and satisfied, emotionally and dramatically. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I have something in my eye…