It’s a difficult job to translate a film into a piece for the stage. And when the film being adapted is of the best-loved films of all time, the stakes become even higher. It’s a difficult bar to rise to – and Kneehigh’s revival of Emma Rice’s critically acclaimed London production is about as successful and delightful as they can come.
Don’t go expecting to see the film. The stage and the screen are different media, and this production’s strengths lie in the fact that it recognises this. Rather than attempting to place the film’s screenplay on stage, it finds a way of telling the same story, reaching back to Coward’s play Still Life to find a framework. The set and projection design are flawlessly and very cleverly executed, and used to great advantage. There is some wonderful mixed media work, and an excellent use of projection, mixing live and filmed action, which allows for a cheeky nod to the film in sequences where the characters move seamlessly from stage to screen. The opening of each half displays a British Board of Film Censors certificate, authorising viewing “for the incurably romantic” and for those “in deep waters”. The moment where Laura stands before the express train to throw herself under it is especially well done in a blend of stage work and screen projection, and is only one example of the remarkable and inventive staging techniques the director has devised to bring the story to life. Special highlights include the use of puppets to represent the children, a recreation of the film’s famous scene when Laura and Alec go rowing, and the passing of different trains represented in various ways – each more innovative than the other. There is nothing on stage that is not used – and oftentimes one is amazed by just how many uses one single prop can be put to.
Rice has given equal focus to the two other love stories in Still Life apart from the Laura-Alec one we know so well: Myrtle the refreshment room lady and Alfred the stationmaster; and Myrtle’s assistant Beryl and the station vendor Stanley, who provide a delightful foil to the former couple. The tale unravels as these three story-lines criss-cross. On the way, the audience are treated to a delightful blend of Coward’s lesser known songs, which not only advance the story but also evoke the period and create moments of total immersion – some staged as acts in front of a ruched curtain. The cast are astoundingly multi-talented, with each singing, dancing and playing multiple instruments. The production feels nothing like the heavy, intense film – and at times more like a music-hall piece (try holding back the audience’s applause).
And it’s perhaps in this very strength that the production has its Achilles heel. Three story-lines are all very well, lots of lovely and heart-warming songs and charming dances are delightful: but what one doesn’t get a chance to engage with the central couple, and care about them. Besides, if the middle-class mores are being contrasted with the carefree flirting of the lower class characters, this is a slightly false tension, as none of the other couples are attached elsewhere, or married. There’s almost a bit too much happening for one to care about Laura and Alec, there is no moment, save one, where one is drawn into their affair because of who they are and what they do (rather than because one knows the characters from the film). This is a scene in which not much is said – when Laura and Alec undress and dry themselves in the boat house after falling into the lake – a scene set with “Go slow, Johnny” being sung by Myrtle and Albert in the background. Consequently, Laura and Alec’s last meeting loses its heart-wrenching intensity, because we haven’t really been swept up in their heady romance. Then there are the opportunities for social comment that are treated as peripheral issues – I felt there was more to be done with these – trouble in the tea room with soldiers, for example, and Alec’s study of the effects of industrial work (coal, steel works) on the health of the working class. But then, as I said – the stage and the screen are different media, there are things you can achieve on screen which are impossible on stage, and this stage version must be treated as an entity in its own. If anything, the ambience created highlights the central tension in Coward’s work: between a rather strong moral code, and the emotional non-conformist.
The performances are all spot on – with a lot of doubling and trebling. Milo Twomey and Hannah Yelland put in wonderful performances as Alec and Laura, but the show is well and truly stolen by Beverly Rudd as Myrtle and in three other roles. She creates a wonderfully eccentric and entertaining character, and demonstrates her versatility in leaving an impact even when doubling as someone else for a few moments and saying very little. Definitely a career to watch. Rudd’s Myrtle is paired with the lovably comic and musically gifted Christopher Price as Stanley.
Go, watch, be entertained, and shed a tear. You’ll be sorry you didn’t, and you’d have missed the train…
- Krishna Omkar