September 15, 2013

Coward’s ironies lost in the action

Brief Encounter
by Noel Coward
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice
Kneehigh (UK)
Presented by Arts Projects Australia,
with State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre.
September 13. Tickets $ 25 – $ 65
Bookings: BASS 131 246,
Until September 28.
Duration : 1 hours 40 minutes (no interval)

Tour dates : Canberra Theatre, October 2-5; Melbourne:
Athenaeum Theatre, October 9-27; Sydney, The Concourse Theatre, October 31-November 17; Wollongong, IMB Theatre November 20-24; Perth , Regal Theatre November 28- December 7.

It might be called Brief Encounter but, by any reckoning, David Lean’s 1945 film is an enduring classic. Based on Noel Coward’s short play, Still Life, it captures Britain at the end of an exhausting war, with a population galvanized by duty, vigilance and sacrifice. The central story describes the chance meeting, in a railway station café, between Dr Alec Harvey and Laura Jesson. Unexpectedly, they fall in love, although each is already married, their destinies already settled. Coward’s subtly drawn script then raises the vexing question of the road – or is it the branch line ? – not taken.

Emma Rice, director with Cornish-based, UK company Kneehigh, had already adapted Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death when, in 2008, she turned her attention to Brief Encounter. The result is a visually intriguing blend of stage and screen effects which begins with the red curtain rising to reveal Laura (Adelaide performer, Michelle Nightingale) standing on the platform, delectably side-lit, as if in rich Technicolor, turning to step through a movie screen to join her husband Fred in a monochrome film version of their suburban sitting room.

It is this portal between the world of everyday life and the imaginings of romance which is the central motif of the production. It is witty, spectacular and poignant and, along with the selected (Dennis Potter-inspired?) use of Noel Coward songs, arranged by Stu Barker, it enhances the experience of both the original film and play.

Rice’s production is brimful with ideas – which is also its problem. The strengths are in Neil Murray’s design and richly evocative costumes, Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s stylish projection and film design. But other devices get in the way – the rowboat, the waitress on a scooter, the corny improv mime freezes, the intrusive incidental music, and the euphemistic movie clips of crashing surf denoting moments of high passion. If they are for fun, they are clumsy; if they are deliberate camp, they unfairly distrust the drama.

In the leads, Michelle Nightingale and Jim Sturgeon are excellent, well supported by
Joe Alessi and Kate Cheel as Albert and Beryl. As the café proprietress Myrtle, Annette McLaughlin is too shrill and the direction squanders the importance of her speech on marriage. This is a lively and inventive production but, in its “knockabout” excesses and caricatures, it widens the class divide between the parallel romantic relationships in the play and obscures the ironies Coward intended. The Brief Encounter of 1945 has benefited from a postmodern makeover, but its exploration of love and infidelity didn’t need this much funny business.

Murray Bramwell

“ Coward’s ironies lost in the action” The Australian, September, 16, 2013, p.14.

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