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Review of Brief Encounter at the Empire Cinema Haymarket

Jim Sturgeon as Alec & Isabel Pollen as Laura in Brief Encounter, credit Steve Tanner
Jim Sturgeon as Alec & Isabel Pollen as Laura in Brief Encounter, credit Steve Tanner

Britain in 1938 was very different to how it is now. For the second time in most people’s lives, war was once again a strong possibility. Everyone dreamed of settling down into a strong stable marriage. Divorce was not something that society approved of – it was only two years previously that the King had had to abdicate for wanting to marry an American divorcee. This is a Britain where the middle classes are responsible for the moral backbone of the nation. This the Britain with Brief Encounter at the Empire Cinema in London’s West End.

A railway station refreshment room is the unlikely setting for romance to spring. Though this is no ordinary refreshment room as it seems to be a magical place with a direct line to cupid and his bow. Presided over by Myrtle Bagot (Lucy Thackeray) a rather grand ‘lady’ with a rather moveable accent, and her young assistant Beryl Walters (Beverly Rudd), the refreshment room is a hive of genteel romance. Myrtle and Albert Godby (Dean Nolan) a senior person in the station hierarchy, Beryl and platform vendor Stanley (Jos Slovick). This then is the spot where Mrs Laura Jesson (Isabel Pollen) – a middle class suburban housewife up in town for shopping and a cinema matinee – and Dr Alec Harvey (Jim Sturgeon) – in town for his weekly stint at the local hospital – first meet. They come together when Laura gets something in her eye and Alec assists her in getting it out. The two of them find they have a lot in common – not only the fact they are both married with children – and their friendship soon blossoms into something more intense and dangerous for both of them. Will their breeding and societal pressure prevail or will the two of them cause a scandal, from which they might never recover, by riding off into the sunset together?

Brief Encounter is based on the original 1945 movie of the same name, which was incidentally, based on Noel Coward’s 1936 one-act play ‘Still Life’. The movie itself is considered a classic and is very much of its time. Wonderfully clipped accents and a fixed sense of duty that looks odd from our perspective now. But there is a wonderful innocence to the story, with its narrative of two people falling in love but never being able to be together, that is timeless. Emma Rice – who adapted the film for the stage and directs the production – has kept all the original elements of the movie but made it something that little bit special with the addition of nine wonderful Noel Coward songs to the story. My favourite was ‘Go Slow Johnny’ which, even though it is from 1961, felt absolutely perfect at that point in Laura and Alec’s story. The other big change in Emma’s version of Brief Encounter is the injection of humour. The original film was quite dark most of the way through but this version has comedic elements right from the start which ensures it doesn’t get too gloomy and depressing.

Jim Sturgeon and Isabel Pollen are extremely well cast as Alec and Laura. Isabel in particular really brings Laura’s emotional side out, particularly when she rushes to the platform as the express comes into the station. Even though I knew the end, I was so caught up in the story that for a second I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. At the end, I really felt for Laura and the decision she had made. Also shining out was Lucy Thackeray as the refreshment room manageress Myrtle Bagot. Working class to her core but with pretensions of being lower middle, Myrtle puts on airs and graces and a wonderful accent that veers between cockney and Kensington depending on what is happening.

So, to sum up, Brief Encounter is a lovely old fashioned story that wouldn’t occur today, but still has something about it that transcends time and place. This production is extremely well put together. The use of a cinema, with a stage added makes this venue both unique and an absolutely setting. Using modern technology – in the form of projected video by Jon Driscoll & Gemma Carrington) – and authentic costumes and set (Neil Murray) it brings to life one of the greatest movies of the twentieth century in a way that is accessible and relevant to all age groups.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

Kneehigh’s production of Noël Coward’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER, adapted and directed by Emma Rice, will be produced live on stage at the Empire Cinema Haymarket in London’s West End by David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers, Jenny & Steve Wiener and The Old Vic. Following previews from 2 March 2018, the production will open on 11 March and play a limited season until 2 September 2018.

The cast will feature Jim Sturgeon as Alec, Isabel Pollen as Laura, Lucy Thackeray as Myrtle, Beverly Rudd as Beryl, Jos Slovick as Stanley and Dean Nolan as Fred/Albert, with Katrina Kleve and Peter Dukes.

BRIEF ENCOUNTER will be directed by Emma Rice, designed by Neil Murray, with lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, original music by Stu Barker, sound by Simon Baker and projection by Gemma Carrington & Jon Driscoll.

2 March – 2 September 2018
Empire Cinema
63-65 Haymarket
St James’s
London SW1Y 4RL


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