Noel Coward, adapted by Emma Rice
Co-produced by Bolton Octagon, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough; Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
October 21-November 5, 2022; 2hr 30min
Passion and guilt; an adulterous love affair and trying to be "sensible" and stick to the rules. These are the emotions and choices that torture Laura Jesson after she meets Alec Harvey in a station tea room and the pair are quickly and powerfully attracted to each other.
The plot of Brief Encounter will be familiar to many from Noel Coward's iconic 1945 romantic film, based on his short play Still Life. This production, adapted by Emma Rice and directed by Paul Robinson, remains true to the story but gains additional dimensions with humour, symbolic sound and live music.
It is set at the beginning of World War II, and Laura – played fetchingly by Anne-Marie Piazza –is a respectable married woman with two children. Though not unhappy, she has a longing for something wilder, more romantic and free. She remembers that as a child she would climb out of her bedroom window to go down to the cove and bathe, to be adventurous. The music she listens to at home is Rachmaninov's second piano concerto, not appreciated by her caring but unimaginative husband, Fred.
The sound of crashing waves accompanies the moments of her need for passion, but she is constrained by society's rules: an adulterous affair would be unacceptable and shameful. There are times when she is as buttoned up as her wartime coat.
Alec appears less guilty about their double lives. A doctor, he too is married with children but wants to push the affair to the next level. At times - as in the film - one wonders if he is driven by love or lust, and does he care. In this production, Pete Ashmore as Alec shows a far more sensitive side to the character. No British stiff upper lip here, our hero actually cries.
But this production has some fun with the other characters, especially the station staff. Natasha Lewis as tea room lady, Myrtle, and Robert Jackson as ticket inspector Albert Godby, have an enjoyable, flirty relationship that seems miles away from "the Romeo and Juliet at table three".
Joey Hickman as Stanley (but more impressive as obnoxious soldier Johnnie) fancies young tea room assistant Beryl, played by Lara Lewis. This young actress showed much versatility not only in acting several roles but also dancing, singing and playing, in particular in her rendition of Coward's Mad About the Boy. Newcomer Rishi Manuel had little scope to show his talent but was a useful addition to the cast.
The whole cast plays instruments, sings and dances. You need to listen hard, but there are nine numbers in the show with lyrics by Coward (and music arranged or composed by Simon Slater) which cleverly complement the action.
The exercise is competent, certainly, but for me there is something missing. In the first act, the move to music and movement makes things a little lightweight.
Yes, the movie can feel rather miserable at times, but somehow the move here to a sort of musical makes the passion less intense.
I wanted to feel that, much as the characters might have wanted it, here there was no real escape.
Info and tickets here