The West End christened its newest theatre on Sunday (17 February 2008) with the opening of Brief Encounter, Kneehigh Theatre’s adaptation of David Lean’s classic 1945 film, at The Cinema, Haymarket. The multimedia stage adaptation celebrated its opening night at the same address where the film premiered over 60 years earlier.
The Haymarket venue originally opened in 1926 as a theatre before being converted into a Cineworld cinema complex. The cinema chain, which runs 73 venues across the country, is co-producing the new stage show, which is currently booking to 22 June 2008, with West End impresarios David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers.
Based on a combination of Noel Coward’s screenplay and his original 1935 one-act stage play, Still Life, Brief Encounter is adapted and directed by Kneehigh artistic director Emma Rice and stars Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock as Laura and Alec, the infidelity tempted couple immortalised on screen by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, as well as Amanda Lawrence and Stuart McLoughlin.
Critics found it difficult to agree on the overall success of this “somewhat odd hybrid”. While some hailed it as an “unexpectedly enjoyable success” in “artfully straddling stage and screen”, others felt it was “a bit much”. Detractors had a particular problem with an aerial scene involving characters hanging from chandeliers which was viewed as an “especially vulgar mistake” that came “at the cost of the quiet integrity” of the piece. However, there was much general praise for a “superbly acted” production that employs “good use of some of some of Coward's superb songs” and Neil Murray’s impressively “dreamstruck” designs. All in all, the conclusion was that this is “a valuable theatrical Encounter.”
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - “At a time in our theatrical history when the interaction between successful movies and their new stage versions is often cynically, lazily and unimaginatively prosecuted, this stunning alliance … will prove a famous landmark in the new hybrid genre … Emma Rice and her design team led by Neil Murray and Malcolm Rippeth go to the heart of Noel Coward’s emotional story of impossible love in a railway station buffet and make genuine theatrical whoopee with its romanticism and social setting … The water of Laura’s childhood sneaky after-hours dips with her sister floods through the show: we see Frederick on film swimming sensually underwater like a liberated mermaid, and the impassioned wash of Rachmaninov’s concerto rolls in with cinematic waves, finally taken up by Frederick herself at the onstage piano which has served throughout as the buffet counter weighed down with Myrtle’s scones and rock cakes. It is all brilliantly done and superbly acted by the riveting central duet: Naomi Frederick is confirmed a shining new star with this performance, and Tristan Sturrock projects the right blend of strong magnetic force and furtive sexuality. This totally unexpected addition to the West End list deserves all the popular success that is surely coming its way”.
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Emma Rice has … come up with a multimedia show staged in a West End cinema; and, while the result has all the frenzied inventiveness one associates with her Kneehigh company, it also emerges as a somewhat odd hybrid …The basic story remains … but Rice has added any number of other ingredients … It all becomes a bit much … While it is good to hear some of Coward's less familiar songs, such as the raucously rude ‘Alice Is at It Again’, it creates a mood more akin to that of his music-hall skit, ‘Red Peppers’, than Still Life. Even the use of filmed inserts to show Laura's secret yearning to be a liberated creature of the sea slightly misses the point: the pathos of Lean's film and Coward's play springs from the very fact that intense, inner feelings can never be fully expressed ...Yet, although the show is overloaded, Rice uses the stage with imaginative freedom … Even if Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock cannot hope to compete with our movie memories of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, they both give thoroughly decent performances. But, in this democratic version, it is the minor characters who come off best: especially Amanda Lawrence as a station-buffet menial with her own secret dreams and Tamzin Griffin as her hoity-toity, slyly suggestive boss. In the end, the show friskily demonstrates Kneehigh's skill but at the cost of the quiet integrity that makes the original Brief Encounter so peerlessly moving.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “This theatrical adaptation of Coward's Brief Encounter turns out to be an unexpectedly enjoyable success … Though Emma Rice has left her distinctive fingerprints all over the piece, she treats Coward's clipped, restrained, touching love story seriously … Naomi Frederick proves a cherishable successor to Celia Johnson as Laura, capturing the character's cut-glass accent, gnawing guilt and sudden surges of passion with a lovely sincerity, freshness and moral decency … Tristan Sturrock is actually more persuasive than Trevor Howard in the role of the doctor who catches her heart … The production makes good use of some of some of Coward's superb songs and light poems while the comic characters in the station café perform amateur variety numbers between scenes. Don't worry - there's lashings of Rachmaninov, too … Some of the physical theatre routines don't work - the sequence when Alec and Laura swing from chandeliers to suggest their passion is an especially vulgar mistake - but it is hard to resist the comic performances of Tamzin Griffin as Myrtle, that ‘refained’ gorgon of the refreshment room, the gawky Amanda Lawrence as her bullied but resilient assistant Beryl, and Andy Williams, who is particularly touching as Laura's husband … Far from being the crude hatchet job I'd feared, the show largely proves a witty and sympathetic homage to Coward's unforgettable portrayal of English reserve and romance.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Rice's production and adaptation, sensibly faithful to the film rather than Coward's short play Still Life, never mocks or caricatures the would-be, guilty lovers or the inherent improbability of their frustrated romance, which could have been simply consummated in a hotel. Neil Murray's dream-struck, expressionistic design solves the problems posed by myriad locations … Rice's relish for theatrical pyrotechnics does sometimes become a flamboyant distraction from the main event … And Coward's working-class romancers, Tamzin Griffin's aspirant Myrtle, Amanda Lawrence's Beryl and Stuart McLoughlin's gormless Stanley are played rather too broadly for conviction. Yet the production eloquently catches the repressed, self-destructive aspect of mid-Forties, middle-England sexuality. Coward's beautiful songs, often sung with pathos on the banjo, are threaded through the action to enhance the lovers' jolting sense of sadness … Frederick's fine Laura reeks of disappointment though she lacks Celia Johnson's devastating sense of grief. Sturrock's extraordinarily powerful, love-lorn GP struggles to keeps his emotions under drapes and finally sings ‘A Room With a View’ in tones of hopeless yearning. A valuable theatrical Encounter.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (three stars) - "Kneehigh's production, adapted and directed by Rice, switches between live action and film footage, and between moods of clipped, clenched pain and wild music-hall exuberance in order to dramatise the passion heaving under all that middle-class restraint, and in order to contrast the anguished and thwarted love between the duty-bound central duo (beautifully played by Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock) with the slap-and-tickle high-jinks of two other couples among the rail staff (Tamzin Griffin very funny as the ‘re-fayned’ Myrtle and Andy Williams pulling off a droll double as the randy station master and as Laura's pipe-smoking bore of a spouse). The production eloquently underscores the action with a selection of aptly chosen Coward songs ... We are given access to Laura's dream world via film sequences that depict her as a sea creature swimming freely in dark waters. You might have thought that such devices – which include the very Kneehigh scene of elation communicated through surreal dangling suspension from restaurant chandeliers – would defuse the charge from the couple's pent-up spoken exchanges, whose power resides in eloquent repression. But this Brief Encounter manages to have the best of several worlds in an experience that is all the more effective for artfully straddling stage and screen”.
- by Kate Jackson