One feels one is in a 1930s Kardomah before the play even begins. There’s a small orchestra — bass, ukelele, accordion, various vocalists — singing to the audience at the bar, and they then serenade us all into the theatre. The brilliantly pink curtain, shining in luxuriant folds, rises, and we see the British Board of Film Censors card which prefaced every movie and which here announces the start of the show. Laura (Isabel Pollen) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon), who’ve been sitting at a table in front of the stage, run onto it. Laura’s husband, shown on a screen, beckons to her, and she seems to teleport from stage to film.
The film, part of the cultural history of several generations, both iconographically and in terms of sensibility, is both backdrop and a shared knowledge the play builds on. The show kids the movie, just like Victoria Wood’s famous sketch did, but with equal fondness. That shared memory, and that shared love for it, is the very structure of feeling the play draws on and develops, both in the way it is constructed and the way individual performances move from light and slightly farcical (most of the supporting characters) and those that are deeply felt and played straight (the lovers).
What we see onstage is necessarily very different from the film. The film makes us cry at the impossibility of this love, at all the social restrictions, from the institution of matrimony to the censure of neighbours, to the weight of the state itself, as seen when Laura goes to sit in the park bench, by the War Memorial in the movie.
The show brings puppetry, circus, a band, acrobatics, songs –‘Mad About the Boy and ‘A Room with View’ by Coward but many others as well — and brilliantly evocative and poetic use of images; sometimes used as a backdrop to evoke mood; sometimes front of stage to show passing trains; once, wittily, to permit Alec to enter the train.
The actors sing to us in a world of images we know and love. In a world of sounds that are a backdrop to English culture. But what does the show do with them? It in no way replaces the power of the film. What we get is an entertaining and witty love letter to it, done in a completely different mode. Sights, sounds, and live actors here deployed to evoke nostalgia for norms, cultural forms of understanding, speech patterns, prices for drinks, and narrative tropes that no longer exist but that we recognise, acknowledge as a shared history, and are fond of.
This production of Brief Encounter, from Kneehigh Theatre and the Birmingham Rep, was first produced in Birmingham in 2007.It’s a wonderful, imaginative evening at the theatre. I particularly enjoyed the sound of Jos Slovick’s voice — lulling and full of feeling — and Dean Nolan’s many comic turns. But all the actors are brilliant.
It’s all rather enchanting, and the production enchantingly uses our memory of the film but without once evoking the depth of feeling the film surprises every audience I’ve ever seen the film with. And yet it’s not a disappointment. It’s a wonderful something else that uses every trick in the book available in theatre to both send a love letter to the film that the show still can’t keep itself from slightly sending up. Those states of feeling presented in those ways might no longer be available to us. And maybe it’s a good thing. They were a bit ridiculous. But weren’t they lovely?