The Theatreguide.London Review
Haymarket Empire Cinema Spring-Summer 2018
When Kneehigh Theatre are inspired, they create theatrical events of unmatched imagination and emotional resonances. (When they're not inspired they're just pretty good.)
Brief Encounter, first seen in London in 2008, is Kneehigh at almost their very best, translating a classic film to the stage in ways that make it fresh and original on the one hand, and a fitting and respectful salute to their source on the other.
The source is, of course, the 1945 film written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean, in which two very respectable middle-class people, both married, fall in love but then decide they must part because it is The Right Thing To Do.
Kneehigh director Emma Rice uses all the resources of theatre, film and music to recreate and enhance the original's honestly melodramatic intensity. The couple, played this time around by Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon, appear both in person and in film clips, sometimes moving between the two.
Wisely, Emma Rice has directed them to play absolutely straight, even when their words and responses approach what has become over time to seem like cliche or excess – and because they take it seriously, so do we.
A counterpointing humour is provided by the much simpler lives of the staff in the railway station cafe where the couple meet, but even here Emma Rice does something as effective as it is audacious.
She punctuates the action with several Noel Coward songs, most of them sung by the cafe characters within the context of their own stories, but chosen and placed to comment obliquely on the central pair or express feelings their stiff upper lips won't allow them to say out loud.
The adaptation is filled with self-referential meta-jokes that surprisingly do not break the tone but enhance it. In a signature Kneehigh trope, the lovers literally float in the air when at their happiest, and a moment of passionate 'movie music' turns out to be a radio being played too loudly.
Other devices are justified by their own effectiveness, as lifesize puppet children take on endearing personalities and a couple of puppet dogs steal the brief scene they're in, while film of breaking waves pays homage to a familiar cinema symbolism from a more censored era,.
The 1945 film is one of the great 'two-handkerchief weepies' of cinema (and in honour of that, handkerchiefs are handed out with the theatrical programs). Kneehigh's version pays full and respectful tribute to that classic while being constantly surprising and evocative in its own theatrical inventiveness.
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