We’ve seen any number of stage attractions derived from motion pictures, and some of these have incorporated actual footage — either vintage or shot-to-order — into the proceedings. But Broadway doesn’t seem ever to have seen live actors interact with, and actually step directly into, the movie.Kneehigh Theater’s production of Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter” might lose some of its impact in its relatively large Main Stem house, especially on the extreme sides and in the mezz; previous runs in London and Brooklyn played venues that were well under 500 seats. Even so, the play should get a warm reception here.
Production uses ingenious theatricality to combine a dollop of nostalgia, a dose of sentiment and a scent of satire into a frothy mix. Adapter/director Emma Rice uses a small cast and modest trappings to turn out a consistent parade of jolts of playhouse wonderment.
“Brief Encounter” — from Coward’s 1945 film, directed by David Lean — follows a pair swept into a passionate but impossible love affair. Rice has gone back further, though, to “Tonight at 8:30,” nine one-acts tailor-made by Coward in 1936 for himself and Gertrude Lawrence. “Still Life” told of a middle-class pair who unexpectedly meet, experience a wildly romantic interlude and inevitably part, all in a suburban railway refreshment room.
Rice’s adaptation veers closer to the one-act than the film, employing the two lower-class comedy couples of “Still Life” to interlace the action with music hall turns. Half the songs are from the Coward songbook; the rest use words by Sir Noel set to new music by Stu Barker.
Barker provides wonderful arrangements, making sure to retain and highlight the Rachmaninoff piano concerto that serves as the film’s melancholically romantic theme. Even so, strict devotees of the film might feel that their favorite has been trivialized by a cascade of songs and laughs.
Cast of seven — each of whom, at times, supplement the hard-working two-man band — is uniformly strong, with Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock in the central roles played on the screen by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Two members of the cast are newcomers; the rest repeat from the 2009 run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, with Sturrock — who has been with Kneehigh for two decades — the one holdover from the London production. They are an ingratiating bunch, cheerfully greeting the audience during the come-in and serenading at the back of the house after the curtain call.
Youngsters provide some of the best musical moments, including a rendition of “Mad About the Boy” which has Dorothy Atkinson entwining herself in Gabriel Ebert’s bass and climaxing the affair with a bit of pizzicato. Highpoint is “Go Slow, Johnny,” from Coward’s failed musical “Sail Away,” suggestively sung by Damon Daunno as the lovers consummate their affair. British reserve being what it is, she merely removes her stockings but the electricity is palpable.
But it is, first to last, Rice’s show. She works hand-in-hand with ingenious designer Neil Murray; much of the staging — on stage, in the house, on a bridge over the deck, in midair — must have been contrived in tandem.
The not-dissimilar screen-to-stage adaptation of “39 Steps” was a considerable success for Roundabout in 2008, and after a profitable commercial transfer on Broadway is now continuing Off Broadway. But the two shows are not strictly comparable: The Hitchcock piece took a mystery thriller and turned it into an all-out-spoof, while “Brief Encounter” takes an atmospheric film with romantic sweep and heightens those emotions, waves crashing and lovers flying head-over-heels.