Sunday, October 13, 2013

Theatre review: Brief Encounter

The adaption of <i>Brief Encounter</i> by the Kneehigh Theatre has more lively charm than romance.

The adaption of Brief Encounter by the Kneehigh Theatre has more lively charm than romance.

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Athenaeum Theatre
Until October 27

Noel Coward's Brief Encounter started as a one-act play before it took flight in the 1945 David Lean film. Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre has drawn on both sources, as well as Coward's zippy songs, to create a slick and entertaining stage adaptation that's bigger on comedy than romance.

Originally played straight, the breathless drama was mildly scandalous in its day for its sympathetic portrayal of an adulterous affair. Social mores have changed since then, though love hasn't, and while Emma Rice's production is crammed with ingenuity and effervescent comedy, the play's sincerity and emotional impact can be disrupted by all the hoopla and the constant appeal to nostalgia verging on camp.

Perhaps the artists agree with the unconventional teacher in The History Boys, who pooh-poohs Brief Encounter as ''sheer calculated silliness''. But if so, why put it on at the Melbourne Festival?


Surely, given the company is on tour throughout Australia, commerce would have delivered this show to Melbourne audiences in any event. Still, it is lively, always watchable, almost flawlessly executed theatre.

The supporting cast comes to the fore, with Annette McLaughlin's Beryl almost stealing the show with her larger-than-life antics. The musical numbers, from Any Little Fish to Mad about the Boy, are performed with easy charm. Sequences that lampoon the film - train and beach scenes, particularly - are cleverly designed and attractive to look at.

But the core of the play - the chance meeting between housewife Laura (Michelle Nightingale) and idealistic doctor Alec (Jim Sturgeon), and their intense but tormented love affair - gets squashed under all the tricksiness.

Nightingale seems to be deliberately channelling (and to an extent, spoofing) Celia Johnson's performance in the film. The ironic lens is unfortunate as she and Sturgeon are well-matched romantic leads. Together with constant comic interruption, the nudge and a wink to the past undermines the sense of emotional reality needed to make the romance work.

There's still no doubt this is a finely tuned crowd-pleaser, and the opening-night audience was wildly enthusiastic. I enjoyed it too, while wishing for a better vehicle to showcase the impressive talent.
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