Married housewife Laura meets married physician Alec when a cinder gets in her eye at a London train station and he kindly removes it for her. Shared tea and conversation in the station tea room lead to another meeting, and another, until Laura and Alec can no longer deny their love, nor the knowledge that as an adulterous middle-class couple living in 1938 London, there is no possibility of a happily-ever-after.
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter now comes to magical, imaginative, supremely theatrical onstage life as the Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts presents the Cornwall-to-London-to-Broadway-to-Beverly Hills production of Kneehigh Theatre’s Tony-nominated adaptation of David Lean’s über-romantic 1945 film classic, itself based on Coward’s one-act gem Still Life.
The above is about all this reviewer knew before entering the Wallis’s Bram Goldsmith Theater, and if you would prefer to be every bit as astonished as I was, read no further. Simply book your tickets posthaste and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
If, however, you’d rather know a bit more about the wonders in store for you, read on.
Los Angeles theatergoers may recall Still Life from its inclusion in the 2007 Antaeus Company staging of Coward’s series of one-acts entitled Tonight At 8:30. As in that production, director Emma Rice’s Kneehigh Theatre adaptation surrounds Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon) with a pair of “comic relief” couples working at the train station tea parlor where our illicit A-plot lovers meet, the foursome made up of feisty tea-shop proprietor Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin) and her spirited train conductor paramour Albert (Joe Alessi) and the younger duo of pert-and-perky waitress Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson) and her handsome young swain, sweets vendor Stanley (Damon Daunno).
Unlike Antaeus’s straightforward take on Coward’s “Play In Five Scenes,” however, Rice and company combine elements of English music hall—and quite a few Coward-penned ditties—along with breathtaking flights of fancy and an inspired blend of live action and film to create something quite out of the ordinary.
The show has already begun pre-curtain, with Alessi, Atkinson, David Brown, Daunno, James Gow, and McLauglin entertaining arriving audience members with an assortment of pre-WWII songs vocalized to their own instrumental accompaniment.
Then, as the lights go down and the red velvet curtain goes up, we are greeted with the opening titles of a black-and-white movie circa 1938, the actors playing Laura and Alec seated in the front row amongst us. A lovers’ tiff propels Laura onto the stage and into a conversation with her husband Albert, Laura live, Albert on film, before leading lady Yelland vanishes into—and then onto—the movie screen.
Clearly this is not going to be your grandparents’ Brief Encounter.
Along the way, Laura and Alec reveal the emotions overwhelming them in Agnes de Mille/Martha Graham-like moves, bodies thrown about by wind or waves, and sometimes even manipulated by supporting cast members who turn Yelland and Sturgeon into live counterparts to the boy-and-girl puppets (designed by Lyndie Wright) who “play” Laura’s two children. Later on, illicit lovers reveal still more of their passion while suspended in midair from crystal chandeliers. And that’s not all.
Accompanying the dramatic/comedic action onstage is a veritable cornucopia of Coward songs (or Coward poems set to music by Stu Barker) performed music hall-style under Ian Ross’s musical direction, including Atkinson’s saucy “Mad About the Boy” accompanied by Daunno on bass; “Go Slow, Johnny,” a gorgeous vocal showcase for the tall, dark, and handsome Daunno; and McLaughlin’s powerful rendition of “I Am No Good at Love.” As for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Golden Era film buffs will be relieved to learn that it too figures prominently throughout, whether performed a cappella by the cast or played live on piano or filling the Wallis with a prerecorded symphony orchestra.
As for the cast, it’s hard to imagine a finer ensemble than the multitalented performers onstage at the Wallis.
Yelland (Tony-nominated for Laura) and Sturgeon (who originated the role of Alec in the Australian production) play it straight, and despite the heightened nature of the pre-method style of acting required by this kind of period piece, the duo are never anything less than authentic, proof of which can be seen in tears streaming down audience cheeks as the star-crossed lovers face their inevitable goodbye.
An excellent Alessi gets to create two distinct characters in the jaunty Albert and Laura’s staid, solid Fred. McLaughlin couldn’t make for a more delightful Myrtle, while Atkinson shines as the bubbly Beryl and as Laura’s chatty friend Dolly, whose eleventh-hour appearance is, to say the least, ill-timed. Musicians Brown and Gow double briefly and effectively as a pair of flirtatious soldiers. Most memorable of all is the charismatic, golden-voiced Daunno, his Broadway-debut role doubled in size at the Wallis to engaging effect.
Sharing star billing with Rice and her company of actor/singers is as extraordinary a design package as you’re likely to see this or any year: Neil Murray’s set and costumes, Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting, Simon Baker’s sound design, and above all Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s film design and projections, which include some striking images of airplanes flying in formation (and presaging the war to come), and great big ocean waves that buffet our star-crossed lovers on the Wallis stage.
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter is produced by Paul Crewes. Simon Harvey is associate director, Andy Graham associate sound designer, and Stephen Parkinson associate projection designer. Dominic Fraser is production manager, Steph Curtis company stage manager, Richard Barlow technical stage manager.
A handful of film purist drama critics have balked at Brief Encounter’s flights of fancy and music hall merriment, to which this reviewer responds, if you want the movie, watch the movie.
Emma Rice’s adaptation of the much lauded Kneehigh production of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter is as extraordinary a piece of theatrical magic as you’re likely to see any time soon. Trust me. It is not to be missed!
Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. Through March 23. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8:00. Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00.
February 21, 2014
Photos: Jim Cox, Zoe Coates