A surreal Coward – Brief Encounter

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Sir Noel Coward, eminent playwright, actor, singer, songwriter and entertainer, was known for his chic and suave style. His one act play “Still Life” was made into a classic film Brief Encounter, by the master of mood David Lean. A shared Palm D’Or at Cannes and a Criterion Collection release testifies to the enduring value of that film.

On the face of it, Brief Encounter is not a complicated tale – it tells of a chance encounter at a train station between two married people, their falling in love, an unconsummated affair, and the eventual resolution of the situation. In the trailer of the Criterion version of the Lean film, the simplicity comes out foremost, aided by the music of Rachmaninoff:



So when the American Conservatory Theater decided to open their 2009-2010 season with Brief Encounter, one wondered if it would be the play or the film that would inspire the production. A collaboration between ACT and the Kneehigh Theater of Cornwall, this one opened to astonishing reviews in the SF Bay Area and is all set to tour the rest of the US after closing in SF. Emma Rice adapts and directs this wondrous affair and turns the somewhat somber and staid tale into a feast for the eyes with her brilliantly inventive take. She combines the film and stage versions into a fusion where actors walk out of the stage and into the screen at will, the music is now very Noel Coward, while retaining Rachmaninoff for the crashing waves, thundering trains, and fierce winds that buffet the cast every so often. As Laura (Hannah Yelland, beautiful youthful and poignant) and Alec (Milo Twomey) talk to each other in a movie theater, we see her husband Fred (Joseph Alessi) on screen pleading with Laura to come back to him, and that is exactly what she does, she walks right into the screen and the next second she is sitting in her living room having a conversation with Fred!! All this happen within the opening seconds, and the audience gives an audible gasp at the magic of it and settles down for two hours of pure and unadulterated FUN.

In this mad cap rendition we have the chubby Beryl (Beverly Rudd) scooting about on a kid scooter as she waits tables, has a fling with the cigarette guy Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin) and generally lights up the stage with her astonishing voice. At the same time the cafe owner Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin) is flirting with the station dispatcher Albert (double duty by Joseph Alessi, what a genius this man is) and also providing commentary on the fate of the romance between Laura and Alec – she tonelessly chants the words by Coward “I am no good at love”!

This is pure vaudeville – the cast bursts into song and dance to Coward tunes, accompanied by a series of musical instruments – piano, cello, ukelele, spoons! The leading lady flies off to chandelier heights after a glass of champagne from her love, the two children are in reality puppets, but with a most life-like appeal, and the society ladies walk frisky dogs that turn out in reality to be furry mops on leashes. There is so much to love here, so much detail, so much inventiveness, so much that is crazy and surreal, one wants to go back again and again for more. If this show happens to hit your town, run to the box office and grab a ticket, you will experience PURE entertainment.

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4 Responses

  1. See the play the Bay Area is going crazy over!!
    http://www.act-sf.org/0910/briefencounter/index.html

  2. A play I’d love to see. Especially after reading such a great review. It reminded me of this Russian 1960 movie ‘The lady with the dog’ –very similar unrequited love story. ( by Chekhov) I think the society ladies walking mops scene, might have been borrowed from that movie. No Sergei Rachmaninov (that’s how we pronounce his name) music score there, but still, it’s a cinéma classique: http://j.mp/cJLqi

  3. Thanks Angelica – Sorry for the misspell on Rachmaninov’s name! Do try to catch the play if it comes your way.

  4. Oh, no, you didn’t misspell it!! Rachmaninoff was the spelling the composer himself used while living in the West. However, transliterations of his name include Rachmaninov, Rachmaninow, Rakhmaninov, or Rakhmaninoff (and other versions; Russian transliteration can vary between languages, you know).
    It’s kinda hard to pronounce Russian v (as in vodka) for English speakers. One of my friends changed his last name Orlov to Orloff just to make it easier for his students, or maybe he was hoping to pass for one of those aristocratic Von Orloffs-who knows. 🙂

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