By Alec Julian & Carrie White
A cabaret band plays, two women tap dance on stage warming up the audience. A motion picture screen unveils with the 1945 black-and-white film opening of Brief Encounter. We are captivated by the film’s interjection only to be interrupted by a couple standing in the front row, arguing. A man begs a woman not to leave, she insists she must. They’re shushed by the cabaret band. At this point, an older bald man appears on screen in a sparse living room framed by two sitting chairs. He calls out, “Laura! Laura!” several times, and the woman turns to the screen to face the man on film. The urgency and frequency of both men’s pleas increase. Without looking back, Laura runs onto the stage and walks directly into the screen, vanishing, only to reappear one-second later on film with the bald man. Once she sits down, he says, ”I’m glad you me came back to me.” Then the screen cuts to a close-up of Laura’s face, tears welling in her eyes.
Welcome to “Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter,” Emma Rice’s unique multi-media adaptation of Coward’s Still Life and its classic film version about an illicit romance that bourgeons at a train station tea shoppe in 1930’s England. Laura (Hannah Yelland) is married with children. Her husband Fred (Joe Alessi) is “medium height, kindly, unemotional and not delicate at all.” Every Thursday, she comes into town to go to the market, return her library book, and go to the cinema. On this particular Thursday, however, she runs into the tea shoppe at the train station to fetch some water to clear something that’s gotten into her eye. Coincidentally, Alec (Jim Sturgeon), a married doctor who’s at the tea shoppe fetching his Thursday lunch, steps in to help Laura. After a short polite conversation, the two strangers decide to meet again the following Thursday. Their lukewarm relationship turns warmer and warmer with every successive Thursday encounter.
In addition to incorporating film, song, and dance, Rice provides her actors with interesting staging even when they’re not dancing. Once the supporting cast and setting have been introduced, a locomotive portending the looming conflict rumbles through the train station, and the actors in the tea shoppe shake in place. Throughout the play, all the actors on stage throw their arms in the air and freeze to illustrate an emotional turning point for Alec and Laura. Another such innovation has Alec and Laura falling back into the hands of supporting cast members, who roll them over and turn them upright, underscoring the tumultuous effect of their immoral affair, while images of ocean waves crashing onto a shore loop on the film screen in the background.
Rice’s production keeps levity in the foreground, mixing in musical theatre and even puppetry, as Laura’s children are portrayed as marionettes. The jocular supporting characters, even when they are just musical props, are written completely by Coward, infused with vibrant individuality by the actors. Myrtle, the owner of the tea shoppe, is unsentimental and pragmatic. She’s wooed by Albert (also Joe Alessi), the rough-around-the-edges station attendant. Meanwhile, Myrtle’s goofy assistant Beryl falls head-over-heals for an equally offbeat musician. In sum, “Brief Encounter” seems so jovial that we may not immediately realize its tragic ending. Alec goes off to Johannesburg professing his undying love for Laura, who wishes to die to bypass the pain of her lost love. Perhaps we were forewarned when upon seeing the two lovers at her tea shoppe, Myrtle announces, “Oh, here come Romeo and Juliet!”
Carrie White is the best-selling author of Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life. She tweets @carriewhitehair.
Alec Julian is a Los Angeles based writer, who (fake) tweets.