Delightful update of Noel Coward's 'Brief Encounter' at Empire Cinema in London

As a homework-doer from way back, before I went to Brief Encounter, a re-imagining of Noël Coward’s play now being performed at, of all places, the Empire Cinema in London, I watched the 1946 film version. It’s a black-and-white romantic weepy about Alec and Laura, a decent man and a decent woman, both married with children, who meet by chance, fall in love, and meet every Thursday afternoon until the situation becomes too difficult and too dangerous since, both are too virtuous and unwilling to blow up their middle-class, decent lives. They suffer the sadness of parting, having had a brief glimpse of passion.

Emma Rice, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe and long-time member of Kneehigh, a high-profile Cornwall theater company, has cleverly, rowdily, and movingly reimagined the vintage movie and created a contemporary show. Her version of Brief Encounter (she directed as well as adapted), is a combination of music hall, panto, farce, and drama all stuffed into a wonderfully entertaining 90 minutes, managing along the way to comment on the stifling restraint of English social values.

Using an actual cinema as the show’s venue allows the production to mingle stage and screen, combining old and new, with all the lovers’ dialogue taken directly from the film. They are surrounded by two other romances as the women in the teashop at the railroad station flirt with their admirers.  There are singing ushers who step in and out of the action, and, at one startling moment, just to underscore the fixedness of film versus the living ephemera of theater, Laura steps off the stage into her living room on screen. This is a use of mixed media that’s much more complicated than, say, that in The Purple Rose of Cairo.  

The cast is irresistible. Isabel Pollen is Laura and Jim Sturgeon plays her lover Alec. We first meet them as they stand up from the same audience we’re in, having just watched the film Brief Encounter. We all watch the closing credits together.  Dean Nolan seamlessly and delightfully plays multiple roles — Laura’s pipe-smoking, portly husband; a singing usher; the judgmental friend; and the lover of the teashop lady. Others in the cast play multiple roles. Especially funny is Beverly Rudd, and especially musical is singer/boyfriend/usher Jos Slovick.

The set (designed by Neil Murray) ingeniously segues from medium to medium, place to place.  And if you haven’t heard anybody sing, “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” or “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” now’s your chance.

Brief Encounter. Produced by Kneehigh. Through Sept. 9 at The Empire Cinema, London.