Roundabout Theatre Company
Reviewed by Carlos Stafford, The Model Critic
A pretty woman and a doctor meet, by chance, at a train station in London, 1938. She has a cinder stuck in her eye, and he offers to remove it. She then “sees” with perfect clarity, perhaps for the first time in her life. His vision is also “corrected,” and like a lightening bolt of recognition, they both fall madly into an irresistible sea of love.
“Brief Encounter” is a joyous, light-hearted bon mot to romantic love. With live music, film projections, vaudeville, pantomime, and puppetry, clichés of love fly through the theatre, breaking the fourth wall, and our resistance to its charm. While the parodies abound, everything morphs into wise, sophisticated nuances that touches everyone. The simple is made complex, and it becomes a fun ride.
The Kneehigh Theatre Co., from Cornwall, England brings this Noel Coward adaptation to our shores; originally a movie, “Brief Encounter,” made by David Lean in 1945, originating from the play by the same name, and emanating from another Coward play, “Still Life.” It had a successful run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, N.Y. last year, before Roundabout’s current offering at Studio 54.
The lovers, Laura and Alec, are conventional pilgrims of life, respectable, married with families. They meet, and like the famous duo from Verona, are immediately smitten. They agree to tryst on Thursdays for tea, then a movie, a boat outing, and lunch. Bored with their private lives, they now become new, free and weightless.
The romantic comedy becomes richly endowed with visual and aural underscoring to their emotional flight. We see stunning projections of white, fluffy, Botticelli-like clouds, and wild waves beating on rocky shores, matching the ecstasy of their inner lives.
Another transporting image is of a film of a woman swimming underwater, in a sea of shimmering shafts of light, free and unbounded. We see Laura and Alec, like lovers everywhere and for all time, as levitating souls.
All of this splendor is countered by the crashing reality of their ordinary existence, and mundane responsibilities. For Laura, when she goes home, she in lonely and removed, and barely knows where she lives, almost a stranger. Her husband is a couch potato, who does crossword puzzles for entertainment, and barely notices her. But for Alex, her magic face is like that of Helen of Troy, “the face that launched a thousand ships.”
And although they are set with this sad dilemma, we have a brilliant comedic scene that celebrates the fandango of their love when they meet for lunch. All stops are pulled as they dance the tango in a shower of roses, drown in bubbles of champagne, and defy gravity with wild abandonment by swinging on the chandeliers, star-dust falling around them. LOL. It’s wonderful!
Most of the action takes place in a tea room at the train station where they first meet. Here we are introduced to two other couples: the woman who owns the store and the stationmaster, and her young assistant, and her lover, the vendor. Both couples have uncomplicated affairs, and they seem to have no conflicts to resolve with their choices and stations in life, all flows easily. They bring us back to reality. As for Laura and Alex, there are important, life altering decisions to be made, as they realize their sad predicament.
The whole, complex effect of the play is filled with visual and aural candy, strung seamlessly together. The Noel Coward songs are especially remarkable, simple and poetic. The director, Emma Rice, has done an outstanding job in bringing all to a magical creative reality, and the company starring Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock, were a pleasure and a delight to watch.