Brief Encounter at Royal Exchange Theatre – review

Sarah Frankcom’s production runs until 13 January

Hannah Azuonye and Baker Mukasa in a scene from Brief Encounter
Hannah Azuonye and Baker Mukasa in Brief Encounter, © Johan Persson

Just as its protagonists find themselves facing two choices, this production has one of two ways to go in adapting a film that’s nearly 80 years old. Blast off the dust or treat it as a period piece. It takes the gentle, less exciting route.

All those quaint details are preserved. Stuffy English accents, muted formal costumes, Noël Coward’s original music. And, slightly less charming, the fusty dialogue: a man declares his feelings with “I love you so”. The story, adapted by Emma Rice, is equally twee, about the romance that builds with each chance encounter between two passengers at a train station. He removes something caught in her eye, and then catches her eye himself. But both are married and parents. “It’ll all end in tears.”

The revolve in Rose Revitt’s set conveys their whirlwind dizziness as they roll past multiple routes and get-off points, caught at a literal crossroads. The gallery’s barriers rattle as trains go past, but also suggest their trembling.

There’s a nice scene at the start where simultaneous stories travel over and through each other like passing trains. But the focus is scattered in the first half across all the ancillary budding romances, each given equal attention, when it needs the engine of the central couple to invest us.

Baker Mukasa and Hannah Azuonye lack the chemistry required to make us fall head-deep like them and believe they’re destined for each other. Mukasa is slightly robotic and stiff, while Azuonye has a permanent fret in her strained voice. Without a deeper connection, it’s hard to pity what’s otherwise just an enjoyable, reckless affair. There’s also a lack of things at stake, her son and husband making momentary appearances. The script is mainly preoccupied with them gushing at each other instead.

Sarah Frankcom’s staging takes the slow rather than express train. Static and quiet, most conversations take place sat at the cafe tables or in small spots. The songs are largely delayed until the second half where an extended music and dance medley bursts out as though it’d been storing up all the energy.

Mostly, the music hangs in suspense, on edge. Twinkling chimes signal it’s not real, though it becomes insistent, much like lighting designer Simeon Miller’s overused heady orange glow. Although the crooning pushes into pastiche at times, the songs are well-matched, such as the dreaminess of the jazz and blues in “Mad About the Boy”. Or the cafe manager’s “I Am No Good at Love”, tethered to the counter she waits to be whisked away from. Christina Modestou’s quaking high range reflects a single woman whose soaring heart has love to give if she could only find a man deserving of it.

What also comes out strongly is the fleetingness of it all. Mukasa shows the man fired up by fantasy in “A Room with a View”, his face beaming as he’s suddenly basking in light that quickly fades away. Its most romantic scene presents a rowboat drifting through blossom-dappled branches. Enough to make you swoon, albeit only briefly