Brief Encounter review – The Watermill delivers a five-star feast

The revival of Emma Rice’s adaptation is playing now

Brief Encounter
Brief Encounter
© Pamela Raith

By the time Emma Rice encountered Noël Coward's tale of repressed desire and emotion, the Master himself had delighted first theatre and then cinema audiences, initially in 1936 with a short play, Still Life, one of three performed under the umbrella title Tonight at 8.30. In 1945, Coward expanded his romantic drama for cinema with director David Lean. The film stars Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as the pair of decent middle-class individuals, each comfortably married to similarly decent partners, who meet by chance in a railway station tearoom and struggle to control their powerful mutual attraction. The addition of a heart-stopping musical underscore, Sergei Rachmaninov's surging Piano Concerto 2 could not fail to catch at audience emotions and the film won the Grand Prize at Cannes and was voted one of the ten best films ever made in 1952.

Rice's sublime reworking embodies the mutual attraction with inspired physical theatre and a script and soundscape that works with the story and especially the music to intensify and express every emotion from longing to shame. She also gives the other characters that people the drama, the staff and customers of the tearoom and the railway station, more agency, more of their own story – especially their relationships – to share with an audience. The comedy is actually heightened once they take centre-stage, not just to provide comic relief (as in the film), but to do their share of the storytelling too, in song and dance as well as with wonderfully comic script and business.

Now director Robert Kirby's supremely joyous reworking for the Watermill builds on Rice' stunning version, for a company of the multi-talented actor/musicians for which the theatre has become famous. To this already heady mix, he adds an extraordinarily successful coup de theatre. He and his company work with foley sound consultant Ruth Sullivan to produce a rich tapestry of effects, at once comic and convincing. The cast work with such inspired tools of the trade as wooden spoons to beat, a suitcase with contents that shake, rattle and roll, water poured and stirred, a washboard that provides percussion and more, all miked up to amplify making tea, the tick of a clock, the roar of a steam train.

The audience is drawn into the poignant story of Laura and Alec's repressed love played out on designer Harry Pizzey's clever, versatile set. His convincing intimate little tearoom with a flight of stairs behind can foreground not just the table across which the lovers yearn so decorously and desperately, the platform where they say their agonised farewells, but also the cosy but claustrophobic front room where Laura tries to so hard to remain a dutiful wife to kindly husband Fred and mother to the two needy kids fighting on the stairs (sweetly comic performances from Kate Milner-Evans and Max Gallagher).

From the transfixing opening, where steam wraps around the lovers and evokes the emotions in which they are drowning, this is a multi-sensory experience for the audience. Every member of the seven-strong cast can sing and dance up a storm, clearly relishing Anjali Mehra's exciting high-energy choreography. Between them, they play a range of instruments and every nuance of a rollercoaster of emotions from high comedy to the desperate frustration of forbidden, transgressive love.

Laura Lake Adebisi plays her namesake Laura Jesson with touching fragility and vulnerability, actually heart-wrenching in her guilty yearning for Callum McIntyre's wonderfully ardent, though upright Dr Alec Harvey. He makes clear that he's well aware of what he risks professionally as a general practitioner as well as personally as a married man, as he walks the tightrope of his emotions. McIntyre provides some of the musical accompaniment on percussion, but it is left to the ridiculously talented supporting cast to realise composer and MD Eamonn O'Dwyer's scoring of a delicious selection of Coward's songs, including "Mad About the Boy" and "A Room with a View"; and notably "The Wide Lagoon" after Sergei Rachmaninov's "Piano Concerto 2" with lyrics by Coward. Onstage MD Gallagher plays not just piano, double bass and accordion but a range of roles too, from Laura's little son to a fellow GP whose has a disturbing chance meeting with Alec and Laura.

In the tearoom, Milner-Evans reigns supreme as owner Myrtle Bagot, a huge comic performance matched by a huge vocal range and versatility. She has fun too as Laura's daughter; and Laura's friend who catches her awkwardly unawares. She's no slacker on piano and particularly washboard too! Her relationship with her own ardent admirer, ticket inspector Albert Godby, and their romantic antics provide a perfect antidote to the high drama of Alec and Laura's encounters. Charles Angiama is a gloriously funny and physical Albert, dominated by his adored Myrtle. In impressive contrast he is also warm and touching as Laura's husband Fred. He gets to play percussion and piano too.

In her main role as Myrtle's eager tearoom assistant Beryl, Hanna Khogali is a comic whirlwind and perfect complement to Milner-Evans; and she has so much fun playing a chatty friend and later a judgemental cousin of Laura's, both of whom catch her unawares with Alec. Her Beryl joins with her squeeze, Oliver Aston's Stanley's station porter, not only as another delicious comic and hoofing double act, but playing between them a full range of strings. The whole cast share comic and musical honours, not forgetting the high drama that plays its part in this tragicomedy. Their onstage cohesion and versatility and the sheer energy and imagination of the creative team and the entire company make for an outstanding, life enhancing experience – if only Dr Harvey could prescribe it on the NHS at this troubled time.