NOEL Coward’s classic Brief Encounter started life as a short play entitled Still Life and became an iconic film, starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, which was quickly recognised as an enduring, three-hanky weepy.
Emma Rice reworked it for Cornish theatre innovators Kneehigh and it opened in 2008 in a London cinema, a nod to its cinematic history. Usherettes served cucumber sandwiches to the audience, and the cast not only performed on stage and in the auditorium, but had been filmed for various scenes projected on to the cinema’s screen.
All this to say that a revival of the Kneehigh production, now undertaken by Douglas Rintoul for Wiltshire Creative, New Wolsey Theatre and the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, has very big boots to fill. It opened at Salisbury’s Playhouse to an eager and enthusiastic audience, ready to welcome both the exciting adaptation of a favourite story and the re-emergence of the theatre as a producing house after a lengthy hibernation.
It has been worth the wait. The audience was greeted by the sounds of a live band in the newly-lit and re-arranged foyer, and then by those same musicians as ushers in the theatre. Later they were on stage as part of the cast of eight actor-musicians – this version includes a clutch of lesser-known Coward songs interspersing the action.
At the centre of The Master’s story are Laura Jesson and Dr Alec Harvey, who meet at a railway station when a passing express train blows a smut into her eye, and he offers to get it out. There begins one of the great romances of 20th century cinema, and it’s all because both of them has a clear moral compass.
As Laura and Alec fall helplessly and passionately in love, the other “inhabitants” of the station buffet, the divorced manager Mrs Bagot and her Station Master suitor Albert, and assistant Beryl and her porter Stanley, proceed with their happily “naughty” liaisons. They watch as the doomed couple is torn apart by a love forbidden by marriage and convention.
Hanora Kamen and Jammy Kasongo perfectly capture the brittle, self-effacing demeanor of the upper-class professional of the period and audible gasps come from the audience when a well-meaning friend comes chattering into their final farewell.
The other six members of the company – Nicola Bryan, Samuel Morgan-Graheme, Tom Self, Lucy Elizabeth Thorburn, Luke Thornton and Chioma Uma – play multiple roles and multiple instruments in this witty take on a familiar tale. See it at Salisbury until 22nd April.
Photographs by Marc Brenner.