Reviewed by Judy Richter
Noël Coward's "Brief Encounter" can be summed up briefly: A man and a woman, both married with children, have some chance meetings in the tea room of an English train station in 1938. They fall in love, but their consciences dictate that they part, albeit most sadly. Of course there's more to it than that, especially in Kneehigh Theatre artistic director Emma Rice's adaptation of the 1945 film, which in turn was based on a Coward short story, "Still Life."
Co-presented by American Conservatory Theater, which has brought the English company direct to San Francisco for its U.S. premiere, this "Brief Encounter" is a stunning mix of theater, music and film performed by six actors and two musicians. The fun starts even before the curtain rises. Dressed like old-time movie ushers, complete with little hats and flashlights, four of the actors and the musicians entertain the audience with songs. As the house lights dim and the curtain rises, a grainy film showing a living room is projected onto a screen. Two more actors, who have been sitting in the front row, get up. As the woman leaves, the man shouts, "Laura, I love you." The woman goes onstage and walks through the screen into the living room to join her husband, who greets her absent-mindedly.
Black and white film is used at other times during the two-act play to depict scenes like railroad trains, waves crashing onshore, a girl swimming, and the man and woman boating on a lake. More music is used, too, mostly songs by Coward. While the relationship between Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Milo Twomey) develops, two other couples, who work at the train station, pair off -- albeit more successfully. The younger couple are Beryl (Beverly Rudd) and Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin). They're supervised by Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), who's involved with Albert (Joseph Alessi), the station master. Alessi also plays Laura's husband, Fred, and the other three also play other characters. Laura and Fred's two children are puppets.The musicians are Eddie Jay and Adam Pleeth.
Under Rice's brilliant direction, scenes develop almost seamlessly at just the right pace. Her efforts are aided by Neil Murray's scenery and costumes, Malcolm Rippeth's lighting, Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington's projection designs, Stu Barker's original music, Simon Baker's sound design, Lyndie Wright's puppets and Robin Kewell's underwater filming.
The four supporting actors are delightful. Yelland and Twomey capture their characters' increasing attraction to each other and their internal struggles to remain proper. The production takes on a melodramatic feel in the second act, but it's reminiscent of films of the period, complete with the background music. In all, though, it represents a coup for as well as a welcome gift from ACT. It's a highly entertaining, most memorable evening of theater -- one that makes a person want to see it again and to recommend it to friends. It's not to be missed.