There comes a point in everyone’s life where they must confront their mortality. I staggered out of Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter into Sunday’s twilight fearing I had just become a Dead White Male. Turns out I was wrong.
Sure, I had found much of the previous two hours absolutely shattering - Noel Coward’s portrait of a doomed affair is too painfully acute not to do that - but this was the problem; while I had absolutely loved a vast majority of what Emma Rice’s adaptation had done with Alec and Laura’s story, I wasn’t at all sure about the rest of the Kneehigh-ification. This was going to be A Matter of Life and Death all over again, with me as the rotting corpse of Caucasian Masculine Theatre Criticism.
However, my memory of the David Lean original was far from perfect. I wasn’t quite sure how much of what I’d just seen had been Kneehigh’s invention and how much was the original Coward. So I spent the evening re-watching the original Brief Encounter, with unexpected results. It turns out that, by and large, I actually preferred the stage version’s rendition of the romance by quite a margin. On the other hand, yes, I still found the forty-five minutes of additional material largely superfluous, under-done, often misjudged or just downright irritating. Similarly, the camped-up, slightly enlarged roles for the staff of the station refreshment room where much of the action takes place are very much a matter of taste. Fans of Kneehigh’s brand of broad, rough-and-tumble humour will laugh their heads off, others won’t. There is also something of a question mark over the company’s overdone use of symbolism. As my companion remarked, it’s like Kneehigh doing Shared Experience doing Brief Encounter, with brief Physical Theatre moments - here an impressionist gust of wind causing everyone to throw shapes, there a projected wave suddenly washing over the on-stage cast - and there’s a ludicrously heavy-handed recurrent crashing waves motif to symbolise the, uh, passion and stuff.
However, for all these caveats, Tristan Sturrock and Naomi Frederick as Alec and Laura, are absolutely first rate. Part of the reason is that they are just more 21st century. Yes, they’re doing the accents and have something like the haircuts, but in actual fact, when held up against the original, one realises how much both have been moderated and softened. And the updated versions come across as more likeable and charismatic. This is perhaps something to do with being in a theatre. The stage version also dispenses with the running voice-over commentary of the original. A wise move and absolutely an improvement - instead of having the emotions explained to us, we get to see it happen. And in spite of some deliberately choppy scene shifting - intercut with music hall-ifications of some Coward songs - Kneehigh have a far greater momentum.
There are some duff notes, though. The ending is brilliantly handled, but then milked for an extra five minutes with Alec/Sturrock offering a funereal rendition of A Room With a View, followed by Laura returning home and starting to play Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto - echoing Emma Rice’s director’s note that she believes the affair will have changed both participants, and her hope that Laura will take up the piano again. This All Must Have Prizes mentality doesn’t sit well with the sentiments of the original, nor does it make a lot of sense; any more than Rice’s amping up of the brief moment when two off-duty soldiers attempt to buy whisky in the station café, which is turned from an innocuous moment into something that looks like it’s going to turn into Motortown.
While the eve of World War II Britain doesn’t map quite so neatly onto the Iraq/Afghanistan-objecting noughties, it is remarkable how searingly acute Coward’s depiction of an affair remains. Overall the piece is something of a mixed bag, but the good moments more than make up for the rest.