In the production of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter currently playing at Studio 54, there are two recurring images played via film on the enormous back wall of the theatre: wisps of paper and debris careening at a frantic pace, carried by a strong wind, and giant, crashing waves washing ashore, breathtaking in both its beauty and potential danger. These images are perfect metaphors for both the by-chance sweeping away of the main characters who fall madly, dangerously in love, and for the experience the captivated audience will have as they become immersed in the fantastic, lushly romantic and thrilling theatrical world that director/adapter Emma Rice and her team of designers and actors have brilliantly conjured for us. You will, quite simply, be swept away.
A rare thing, indeed, this play takes you away from this world to a time that seems so distant, and yet so close and desirable, through imagination and through all of those things that only live performance can do. This may sound strange, given the much talked about technical elements of the play. But having seen this dazzling, important work, it is wonderful to report that for once the technical advances used in this production do not overwhelm it, but rather enhance it, and perhaps most fantastical of all, it actually makes the show feel all the more alive and immediate, something most films can rarely do.
Immediately, you know that the line between play and audience will be blurry at best, as the cast assembles to play us a few pre-curtain ditties, and then as the lights go down and the movie starts, the characters spring to life from amongst us and on to the stage. Smartly, the much ballyhooed film/live action interaction takes place almost immediately thereafter, letting us know that, yes, we can look for such trickery throughout, but now that you've seen what we can do, relax and get into the story with us. There are plenty of such cinematic elements throughout - the aforementioned waves and breezes, place holders that tell us where we are, even as the scenery doesn't change, and some truly exciting train station imagery. That imagery is glue that keeps all of the elements together - the plot and the technology. At a distance, it adds to the feeling of desolation and of love doomed to fail, while up close and at a frantic pace, the rushing by of a life-sized train screams by so that we, too, feel the danger and finality of love lost and lives out of control.
But, of course, this a play, and Ms. Rice and company dazzle with a firm grip on theatrical presentation and high comedy, grounded by a striking and equally dazzling realism. Reveling in the conventions of live theatre as much as the cinema (projections by Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll), the production employs a striking pink curtain that often interrupts the story so that the troupe may sing and dance in astute commentary to scenes just past or next to come. And the staging is so theatrical, it stirs up every sense your body possesses as a piano serves as an instrument and a train station cafe serving station, as piled high with coal trusses and scaffolding serve as a train station, trysting place and the stairs of a loving home (setting and costumes designed by Neil Murray) . Your ears thrill to the superb and expertly timed sound effects (designed by Simon Baker) do everything from signal an incoming train to allowing all in the auditorium to hear the rush of bubbles pouring forth from a newly uncorked bottle of champagne. Your eyes marvel as the most simple of lighting effects- a dimmer and a spotlight - designed by Malcolm Rippeth, tell you where to look and then magically direct your eyes to places without light where things are happening in silhouette.
All of this to tell us the simplest of stories: a man and woman, both married to others, who by chance meet at a train station, and, instantly attracted to each other, allow that one encounter to blossom into innocent (at first) weekly meetings for lunch and a movie, which slowly become encounters where both are fighting desperately to not let happen what both really want to happen.
To balance and add depth to the main story, we are also witness to the lives of those who are outside the romance, but directly affected by it. We see the staid, proper gentlemanliness of the woman's husband, aware of things but keeping it together for the sake of his family, home and marriage. Then, too, there are the friends of the woman who inevitably see her in public and one, who eventually puts two and two together as the the couple fumbles to make everything appear above board. And, we see the people whose lives depend on that all important train station, and how their lives intertwine in a complicated dance (literally and figuratively in this staging) of coupling and uncoupling. These people, the matron who runs the cafe, her nice but somewhat dim assistant, the station manager, and the young man who sells sundries on the platform and in the waiting room, round out the subplot and contribute to the main one. The periphery of the setting also holds a small band (Edward Jay, Adam Pleeth and Damon Daunno) which the actors join on occasion to sing the songs of Noel Coward which, Cabaret like comment further on all of the action.
These scenes also serve to pump up the story itself and to offer a break from its by-today's-standards romantic, but not physical love story. Those looking for titillating sex, brief nudity and and in-your-face confrontation need to look elsewhere, for this production thoroughly embraces the era long gone when complete strangers without a thought would help each other, where a chance meeting turns into a romantic love story and not a lurid affair ending in sweat-soaked sheets and heavy breathing. No, it is all about the emotion, the feelings of the moment and of the possibility of more, and even that possibility is romantic - the difference between screwing someone and making love to them. The mechanics may be the same, but the journey is completely different. How refreshing to be swept away by love, by passion, and not be forced to also see the personal details. It is far more romantic and more gratifying than any post-coital spooning I've had to endure in the theatre at other plays.
The company of actors is superb from top to bottom. The band members, particularly Mr. Daunno also play bit parts as customers and voices of characters. Similarly, the station workers lend their voices and instruments to the numbers as well. As a musical ensemble they are terrific in capturing the period flavor and the modern thought behind the placement of the songs. Gabriel Ebert as Stanley, the young man who sells things on the platform, is a lanky confection of boyish charm, gawky silliness, and romantic manliness, a wide-range of character which he sells more than convincingly. The object of Stanley's fancy and her employer's ire is Beryl, winningly played for laughs and understanding by Dorothy Atkinson. She nails the awkwardness of a young girl just becoming aware of her womanly wiles and desires, and she is a riot as an older woman with a snippy dog. She also gives a smart performance when she plays a friend of the woman in love, who stealthily gets between the woman and what could be a tragic ending, all while seeming oblivious to what is right in front of her.
As both the station master and the woman's husband, Joseph Alessi so adeptly plays his roles that you can only tell it is the same person because he looks the same. But the characters couldn't be more diverse. The husband is rather bland, but solid, and with just a few words and well-chosen posture, you can feel his relief that he hasn't lost his wife to another man. His station master, on the other hand, is robust, large and in charge, and a cuddly teddy bear full of charms to dazzle his love, the cafe owner. Mr. Alessi effortlessly plays both serious and broad. As Myrtle, cafe owner and extra sassy femme fatale (she thinks), Annette McLaughlin sashays and quips her way into your heart from the moment she takes the stage. Her attention to detail grounds her performance in a familiar and yet striking reality, while at the same time you follow her dalliances, quirks and temper flare ups without question. We are as smitten with her as the station master.
The central couple in this simple and complex tale of passion and forbidden love is winning played by Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland. Mr. Sturrock is a dashing man - a matinee idol, if you will - who instantly brings a warmth and subtle masculinity to the stage the minute he speaks. It is easy to see why women notice this man, and somehow acceptable that even though he is married and so is she, that they should be allowed their brief encounter. As Alec, he really mines the wide range of emotion of the character without ever losing a shred of his gentlemanly ways. You almost feel bad for him that his true love will go unrequited, even as you feel good that he really is the good guy you think he is. As beautiful as he is handsome, the charming Ms. Yelland as Laura also sweeps you up in her emotions, questions and fears. As she plays it, Ms. Yelland never once makes you think of Laura as an adulterer or anything less that the most upright of women, even as things spiral out of control, and finally, as the tears stream down her face, unseen as she leaves her love to return home to her family. With the slightest but palpable hint that they are doing these hyper-emotional scenes with a wink and a nudge, it is the sincerity, and therefore, reality of their characters' old-fashioned values that makes this affair without sex believable even for today's audiences. Their passionate embraces, their stolen glances and even their highest highs (enjoying the afternoon on a row boat only to get soaked after the boat over turns, slowly undressing to get dry, but never more than that, tells their story best) gives us all the sparks we need. Is there any more happy and romantic a moment on the Broadway stage today than when they swing from chandeliers, clutching bouquets of roses, or more sad a moment than when Laura, devastated, watches the love of her life fly by in a speeding train, gone forever?
Separately, the technical elements are terrific, but it is the entire collaboration of designers, direction and acting that sets Brief Encounter far apart from other shows. There are no weak links and no standouts, but rather a perfect synthesis that reminds us of all the wonders of the stage and propels us into the future of stagecraft. This is a rare gem of a show that deserves to be seen, reveled in and embraced. But like the most romantic of meetings, as the lights come up and we file out, happy to be alive, we are reminded that live theatre is also a brief encounter.
Brief Encounter plays through January 2. This is a must-see production.
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