This simple yet ingenious show is an unadulterated joy for theatre goers...
UK theatre company Kneehigh’s production of Brief Encounter has toured to the West End and Broadway to great acclaim and that success looks set to continue as The Melbourne Festival brings the show to The Athenaeum Theatre this month. This simple yet ingenious show is an unadulterated joy for theatregoers and you don’t need to be familiar with Noel Coward’s original play Still Life or his movie adaptation from 1945 to enjoy the sensational romance and humor of this piece.
Brief Encounter begins as the audience is being seated with the supporting cast dressed as ushers playing live songs from the 1930s. We are then introduced to out two main protagonists, Laura (Michelle Nightingale) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon), as he implores her to stay whilst boldly declaring his love for her. Then Laura’s living room comes into focus inhabited by her husband Fred (Joe Alessi), immediately establishing that the love affair to come will be an illicit one. The two lovers first meet by chance in the tearoom of a railway station and the remainder of the performance charts the trajectory of their passionate affair, from innocent beginnings through to it’s dramatic conclusion. Two other couples parallel the central love story; uptight tea lady Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin) begins a relationship with railway guard Albert (Alessi again) and young delivery boy Stanley (Damon Daunno) attempts to woo waitress Beryl (Kate Cheel).
From it’s opening moments, where a large projected title screen dominates the stage, Brief Encounter bursts with highly imaginative staging and perfectly crafted interactive projections, the latter were created by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington. The back wall of the set features location establishing projections, such as the wooden panels of a secluded cottage or a dreamy star-filled nigh sky. Another cloth frequently appears upstage throughout the performance, adding another dimension of projection in which the cast members can interact with pre-filmed video sequences. Characters slip behind the screen and magically appear in the projection, such as when Alec waves to Laura from a moving train. These moments of stage trickery could easily have come across as hokey but in director Emma Rice’s capable and creative hands it all work splendidly.
The set design by Neil Murray features the tearoom as a central focal point, complete with steaming urn and elevated counter top. Two large metal scaffolds flank the stage and a suspended bridge flies in at numerous times throughout the performance adding another level for the action to take place. Brief Encounter is a truly collaborative piece; the cast change sets before our eyes and musicians regularly appear to present several transitional musical interludes. All of these stagecraft elements give the show a swift and fittingly cinematic pace. The exhaustive creativity of this production doesn’t end there; ingenious puppet creations stand-in for Laura and Fred’s two small children and one incredible sequence involves Laura joyously floating from a chandelier whilst on a dinner date with Alec. This show is an absolute triumph of staging and paired with the collaborative nature of the performances perfectly captures the Kneehigh ethos of telling stories in a vigorous and popular way.
Local performer Nightingale brings a haunting vulnerability and stoicism to the role of Laura. She is a beautiful presence on stage; it’s easy to see why Alec would fall so immediately in love with her and Nightingale ensures that the conclusion of the show is nothing less than heartbreaking. Scottish actor Sturgeon has a nice chemistry with Nightingale, however some of his grand declarations of love come off as a tad cloying at times. Alessi is a true acting chameleon, effortlessly switching between his multiple roles with ease, and McLaughlin almost steals the show as the stiff yet saucy Myrtle, tearing up the stage with boundless energy and effortless comedic timing. As the goofy Stanley, Daunno is a charismatic performer with a sensational singing voice and Cheel creates an awkward and charming Beryl.
This reviewer could go on and on about the charm of Brief Encounter, suffice it to say Kneehigh’s production explodes from the stage with romance, breathtaking inventiveness and an exuberant sense of play. This is theatrical storytelling of the highest order and an all too brief encounter with perfection.
Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5
Kneehigh Theatre and Melbourne Festival present
Director Emma Rice
Associate Director Simon Harvey
Original Music Stu Baker
Designer Neil Murray
Lighting Designer Malcolm Rippeth
Projection & Film Designers Jon Driscoll & Gemma Carrington
Sound Designer Simon Baker
Associate Sound Designer Andy Graham
Musical Director Ian Ross
Producer Paul Crewes
Performers Joe Alessi, Kate Cheel, Damon Daunno, Annette McLaughlin, Michelle Nightingale, Jim Sturgeon
Musicians Dave Brown & James Gow
Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne
Melbourne Festival 2013