Review: Brief Encounter (Empire Cinema, Haymarket)

Emma Rice’s adaptation of Noël Coward’s classic is revived in the West End

Love is in the air – for a 'brief' time, at least, as Emma Rice and Kneehigh‘s adaptation of the classic 1945 Noël Coward film returns to the West End ten years after it first arrived on stage. Converting the Empire Cinema in Haymarket into a wide-fronted plush stage, it’s fair to say that, in typical Kneehigh fashion, Rice has cooked up nothing less than a visual feast, combining puppetry, projection, film, dance and a live band. This is a show that mingles a love of celluloid with theatrical verve.

The stage adaptation is, just like its main protagonists, not very faithful – instead of the single monochrome and melancholic storyline that Coward created, we are introduced to three colliding romantic trysts playing out largely in the same railway station. Each couple celebrates a different kind of dalliance – the joyous discovery of young love between a street vendor and a waitress, the passionate sexual desire between two workers at the station, and, finally, and perhaps the most recognisable for cinephiles, the sadness of forbidden love, based on the same story brought to life by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the film all those years ago.

It is the final couple that occupies most of the runtime, as Rice plays out the fleeting fling of married woman Laura (a haunting and sedate Isabel Pollen) and married man Alec (the charismatic charmer Jim Sturgeon), who meet quite by accident on the train platform. From there, their unlikely liaison blossoms, with spontaneous boat trips in the countryside and champagne-fuelled trips to restaurants. The show wears its '30s context on its sleeve – all thruppence, antiquated gender norms and brash, boisterous behaviour – retaining a nostalgic charm in the process, although it is let down by a lack of diversity amongst the cast.

Rice’s company appear first as ushers, shushing audiences and flashing discreet torches, before letting the story unravel before our eyes. The multi-roling is typically superb, Beverly Rudd (fresh off the back of a storming turn in The Tin Drum), using her role as the petulant Dolly Messiter to create an uneasy final scene.

But, slowly, subtly, it is musician and young lovebird Jos Slovick who steals the show; playing every instrument under the sun while also fulfilling the archetypal cheeky-chappy '30s character with ease – like a suave George Formby, all tank tops and knitwear. His rendition of Sail Away's "So Good At Love", accompanied by some thrilling choreography from a hyper-flexible Dean Nolan and Lucy Thackeray, was a 3-minute high point in a piece peppered with musical delights. 

For all its brilliance, this is a show that rarely feels as sweet as Romantics Anonymous, or one that soars as highly as Flying Lovers. The aerial sequences felt too sudden and unfulfilled, while the physical sequences, laced throughout the show, never seem to create as powerful an impact as the more sedate, intimate two-hander scenes that Rice gives to her leads. Brief Encounter may feel like standard fare for Kneehigh, perhaps, but is still a joy ride for punters looking for a master-crafted piece of storytelling. 

Brief Encounter runs at Empire Cinema, Haymarket until 2 September.