Americans turn movies into musicals, but Britain has cornered the market on cinema-inspired straight plays. Though straightforward transcriptions often fall flat Stateside (“The Graduate,” “Festen”), a scintillating concept can ignite an experience that both honors and expands upon its source: Patrick Barlow made comic hay out of an already jokey “The 39 Steps.” Now, in positively magical fashion, Kneehigh Theater of Cornwall pulls a theatrical circus and potent feminist statement out of that 1946 classic of repressed romanticism, “Brief Encounter.”
The tour opened its New York run Dec. 8 and plays at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn through Jan. 7
Once renowned, David Lean’s fastidious helming of Noel Coward’s screenplay can appear mild today: Two middle-aged marrieds fall in love on weekly trips to town but return to their spouses, their affair always on a low flame and never consummated. Pic is veddy slice-of-life, its subtext provided by strains of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
In the hands of Kneehigh doyenne Emma Rice, Rachmaninoff is kept to a minimum as subtext takes centerstage: Upon meeting, the swooning lovers fall backward into the empty arms of other cast members; a posh luncheon morphs into a sensual ballet, with heroine Laura (Hannah Yelland, in a deeply felt performance that brooks no mockery) dangling from a chandelier. Yet it all feels proper, as if Rice had merely turned the Coward fabric inside out to reveal its true essence.
Intended deconstruction is announced by B&W film clips projected onto a screen into which live actors can literally pop at will — one of many visual coups pulled off by designer Neil Murray. The main set is a fractured representation of the railway station and cafe in which Laura and Dr. Alec (Milo Twomey) tentatively pursue their amour, in contrast with a host of locals joyfully celebrating their own appetites.
“Brief Encounter” is galvanized by ensemble energy. The tea girl (dazzling butterball Beverly Rudd) zooms about on a scooter to vamp cigarette boy Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin), while her boss (charming Annette McLaughlin) wiggles a padded bustle at dispatcher Albert (cheery Joseph Alessi, doubling as Laura’s husband). The antics are most surrealist yet grounded in character reality.
Indeed, if you thrust the Coward screenplay at Luis Bunuel, demanding he treat the discreet charm of its bourgeoisie with the utmost affection rather than scorn, you’d have something very close to this “Brief Encounter,” which never fails to enthrall even at its barmiest.
Brechtian commentary is provided by selections from the Coward songbook reflecting his own frustration as a gay man in the 1930s — “I Am No Good at Love” (“I betray it with little sins”), tonelessly recited by McLaughlin as Laura stands torn between her two worlds.
The chilling “Go Slow, Johnny” accompanies the couple’s first real intimacy, drying off after getting drenched in a lake. (With nothing more explicit than a removed sock or blouse, this sequence under Malcolm Rippeth’s chiaroscuro lighting carries an unforgettable erotic charge.)
Water imagery is central, as illustrated in Alec’s reply to Laura’s desire to be “respectable”: “But there must be a part of you, deep down inside, that doesn’t feel like that at all — some little spirit that still wants to climb out of the window — that still longs to splash about a bit in the dangerous sea.”
Cut to film footage of a young Laura at swim like a sea creature, spotting her attraction to Alec as a bid for personal fulfillment rather than a cliched escape from a loveless marriage. Interestingly, Rice has cast both roles considerably younger than Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the film, presumably to accent early adulthood’s potential rather than lives in fade-out.