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 between a commercial management, Kneehigh Theatre, the Birmingham Rep and West Yorkshire Playhouse will prove a famous landmark in the new hybrid genre.
Unlike Kneehigh’s recent makeover of A Matter of Life and Death at the National – which demeaned a great film with hollow trickery and false conclusions – director 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 Cinema on the Haymarket is the Cineworld, the former Carlton Theatre, built in 1927 and last used for stage purposes by Anthony Newley in 1960. The largest of the three cinemas in the complex – occupying the old grand circle and balcony – retains its architectural properties, and comfortable seats, while a new wide stage has been built.
Here, Laura Jesson (Naomi Frederick) disappears from the real-life Technicolour of her quasi-adulterous dalliance – which begins with a Thursday afternoon cinema outing – into the black and white film of her dull married life at home in the suburbs. The production is on constant switchback between the reality and the “film” – which finally becomes Laura’s story as Alec Harvey (Tristan Sturrock) exits to a new life in Africa through the stalls.
Coward wrote the screenplay for the iconic David Lean movie starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. It was based on Still Life, his own short play of five scenes, which are all set in the buffet. Rice overlaps both sources and adds music hall songs (music by Stu Barker) set to Coward’s poems – notably “I’m No Good at Love” and “Like a Romantic Schoolgirl” – as well as Coward’s own music and lyrics in delightful items like “Any Little Fish” and “Alice Is at It Again”.
The latter song is performed by the startlingly zany Amanda Lawrence as Beryl the buffet drudge with a set of suggestive bendy balloons. The original counterpointing of the earthy, natural liaisons between Beryl and the platform vendor Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin, blessed with a fine singing voice), as well as between her brassy boss Myrtle (Tamzin Griffin) and the station master Albert (Andy Williams doubles this role with that of Laura’s stolid husband, Fred), is built up to make a poignant contrast with the cataclysm of Laura’s experience.
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.