Noel Coward, adapted by Emma Rice
Royal Exchange Theatre Company
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
December 2, 2023-January 13, 2024: 2 hrs 20 mins
It’s extraordinary how potent cheap music is, as The Master himself put it. And Emma Rice’s adaptation of Brief Encounter injects songs of the period into the well-known storyline (memorably filmed, by David Lean), to give it a completely new dimension.
Now Sarah Frankcom, returning to direct at the Royal Exchange Theatre, with musical supervisor and director Matthew Malone, has made the show – already 15 years old – into a tribute to Coward on the 50th anniversary of his death, by using just his songs and no others.
It’s a Christmas offering and deliberately fun as well as sentimental – bitter sweet, to coin a phrase. And Coward was right about music: it can turn a theatrical moment on a sixpence and make it moving. The music here is far from cheap, as it’s done in modern jazz style and with the band on stage and visible, enabling the actors to step out of the story at times and become its chorus.
There’s some neat dancing too (Sundeep Saini), with one extended sequence for I’ll Follow My Secret Heart, rather like in the Exchange’s Romeo and Juliet, turning into a showstopper in itself as it pulls the levers of a Strictly number and the audience feels compelled to yell.
The thing I appreciated most about it is the sense of time and place. Rose Revitt’s design tells us immediately we’re in a large railway station, with a big suspended clock hanging from “girders” high above us (which moves to mark the times of day): there’s a railway engine turntable of a revolve beneath it, symbolising with its choice of exits the directions taken or not tried; the sounds of steam trains periodically fill the house and even make it shudder – Russ Ditchfield is the one to thank – and every detail I could see of the station refreshment room seems in 1930s period: the rock cakes, Bath buns, scones and cakes, the urn and teapot, milk bottle, and so on, and the very woodwork throughout. In fact the production ideas tumble over each other so fast you can hardly keep up: Laura’s walk towards the oncoming lights of a train pops up in the first half, not just near the end, and the fact that she finally goes back to faithful domesticity is made clear both at the beginning and part way through, so we’re never in doubt about the conclusion of the story.
The songs – 11 of them in all, plus a quick medley of Tea for Two and a bit more not by Coward before the interval – are necessarily crowbarred in, stopping the action rather than advancing it, but they give the talented cast a chance to show what they can do vocally. They’re not all in the same class, but together they make a pretty good ensemble, and the solos numbers for Alec (Baker Mukasa) and Laura (Hannah Azuonye) – A Room with a View and Come the Wild, Wild Weather – are kept to near the end, giving them the weight of coming after the break-up is inevitable, and are very well sung.
“Do you think Rachmaninov will get a look-in?” a friend asked me when I told him the show sounded in advance like a jukebox musical of Coward numbers (he was alluding to the use of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto on the soundtrack of Lean’s 1945 film). Well, yes, he does: we get the haunting chords of the opening of the concerto three times over, in fact – the last time played by Hannah Azuonye herself – and I fancy Matthew Malone can sneak in some bits here and there as well whenever he pleases, so you can play spot-the-allusion musically as well as visually.
There are only seven in the cast, five of them playing 15 roles between them, so the quick-changes and their ability to don different personae are impressive. I particularly liked Richard Glaves’ transformation from Fred (Laura’s husband) to Albert the ticket collector and then to Alec’s medical colleague Stephen, and also Ida Regan’s turn, after three other roles, to Laura’s gossipy friend Dolly who brings about the final, uncomfortable, parting.
The two parallel romances – Coward’s Myrtle (Christina Modestou) and Albert, and the added Beryl (Ida Regan) and Stanley (Georgia Frost) – give a reflection of class differences, in the age of First, Second and Third in railway carriages: mostly through regional accents, as we hear a bit of Welsh English along with generic Northern to contrast with Alec and Laura’s Home Counties drawl.
So it’s not a weepie, but a celebration of Coward, his world, and his “talent to amuse”, and the final company rendition of If Love Were All puts that clearly on the line.
More info and tickets here