‘Brief Encounter’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by June 30, 2016

‘Brief Encounter’ was originally a one-act play, ‘Still Life’, written by Noël Coward in 1936. This adaptation for the stage is by Oxford-born actor, Emma Rice who is at present the artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London. In 2009, Rice was nominated for an Olivier Award for this play, as Best Director.

This world famous and much-loved story is now being presented by the Stirling Players at the Stirling Theatre, Morris Place, Innaloo. The performances are at 8.00 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights until the 16th July. There are also Sunday matinées on the 3rd and 10th July at 2.00 pm.

 

The fascinating foyer displays by Fran Gordon, Bree Vreedenberg and Kevin Forward set the mood. The usherettes are dressed in white and gold with pillbox hats.

It is the winter of 1938-39, just months before the start of the Second World War.

 

At the side of the stage on the apron is the corner of Laura’s swish sitting room. At the other side of the stage is cinema seating and the lounge in Alec’s flat.

The main stage depicts a railway tearoom furnished with black tables and bentwood chairs. There is a coal stove burning against one wall. To the side is a large, cafe counter with various cakes and crockery. The back wall has a photo of a railway station roof projected onto it (operator Jane Sherwood, with film footage from Fuller Media).

Another scene is a plush, candlelit restaurant brought to life by its dapper waiters, tablecloths and vases of flowers. The effect is completed with an impressive, illuminated chandelier.

A riverside scene is simple, but most effective. Despite the number of settings, each one was fully furnished with numerous props of the era. Fran Gordon, Emma den Hartog and Joel Howe’s costumes were stunning and perfectly selected. It was obvious what a huge amount of work had gone into the set design, furnishings and costumes to create the perfect mood.

 

      As Dr. Alec Harvey (Glenn Scott) enters the Milford railway station tearoom, he notices a smartly dressed lady trying to wash a mite of train smoke from her eye. She is, Laura Jesson (Maree Andersen) a bored and ignored housewife. As the couple share a table, the tearoom manager, Myrtle (Ann Speicher) watches them, intrigued by the warmth of their conversation. She is initially unaware of the advances being made to her by the stationmaster, Albert (Hadrian Fuller).

     Just as the young waitress, Beryl (Simonne Matthews) clears the tables and puts another lump of coal on the fire, the platform service boy, Stanley (Zack Inglis) comes into the café to have his tray replenished, and to smile longingly at Beryl. Two soldiers on leave, Bill (Damien Johnson) and Johnnie (William Errey) stagger into the café and create havoc.

   The married woman and the married doctor agree to meet for a cinema matinée the following Thursday – purely for the company. We see Laura arriving home; she kisses goodnight to her son, Bobbie (Charlie Motbey) and her daughter, Margaret (Lakeesha Motbey) before trying – unsuccessfully – to have a sensible conversation with her disinterested husband, Fred (Craig Edwards).

     Both with loveless marriages, the couple have no qualms at meeting again. As they enjoy a sumptuous meal after the film, they are unaware that two of Laura’s nosey and interfering neighbours, Hermione (Karin Staflund) and Mary (Liz Pemberton) have spotted them and are approaching in search of gossip.

     How will the love affair develop? Will they make love secretly in this morally unacceptable affair?

      Janet Brandwood and Oliver Kaiser played multiple cameos, giving depth to the storyline.

 

The musical numbers have been beautifully created and orchestrated by Bree Vreedenburgh, from the copyrighter’s score. The music plays very subtly in the background throughout the play, thanks to smooth operator, Melissa Skeffington. Young Zack and Simonne’s singing was delivered with feeling, and Karin and Liz gave a powerful backing chorus to several songs. Ann brought a smile with her vivacious and saucy delivery. The excellent musical interludes were often used to ‘cover’ the set changes (very efficiently carried out by the cast under the supervision of stage manager Janet Brandwood).

Ian Wilson’s lighting design is always good, but for this show it is exceptional; complex in design and filled with atmosphere. Paul Anderson had the nightmare of operating the numerous changes, but he carried out the task smoothly and with accuracy.

The low point of the play was the dreaded headsets. I appreciate that these can be very expensive, but some crackled and others dropped out. The experienced operator was probably as frustrated as the audience was. I suspect that the complete sound desk needs an overhaul, as even the speakers seemed a little unreliable too. Perhaps ditch the aging headsets and let the performers use their theatre skills? The techs were very aware of the problem, and as it was the preview I was attending, then I am sure the problem will be cleared for the opening night.

The stunningly beautiful and sensitive 1945 David Lean film was in black and white, with very few scenes filmed outside of Carnforth Station. The film’s brilliant camera work was by a Perth born cinematographer, Robert Krasker. The 1945 film was made just after WW2, at a time when virtually no one would have intimate relations before marriage. Then in 1974, just after the Free Love era of the 60s, Carlo Ponti brought out a dreadful, brash Technicoloured version that starred Ponti’s wife, Sophia Loren with Richard Burton. It was fussy, heavy handed and totally without atmosphere.

I was apprehensive as to which style the director, Jane Sherwood, would employ, and could the frustrated love translate to the stage? Thankfully, Ms Sherwood’s version was much nearer the original. Jane can be relied upon to check every aspect of her productions, ensuring depth and reality in every scene. Small touches like the train smoke drifting past the café, the dozens of railway sound effects. Her skilled direction ensured powerful and yet romantic performances from the couple, backed by a strong cast.

The play includes several Noel Coward songs, but it is not a musical, but rather a drama with songs. This blend of drama and music is the idea of the play’s adaptor, Emma Rice; and although she won an award for the adaptation, I felt it slowed the play down slightly and was even distracting.

Tackling a story that has lasted more than 70 years in the top 200 movies can be risky, as the audience will certainly have their own expectations, but this ambitious, quality and enjoyable production gave a very pleasant evening’s entertainment.

The demand for tickets has been enormous, so get in quickly for the night of your choice.