Last Wednesday, just prior to spending a fortune to subject myself to “Spiderman,” and just after a morning performance of The Big Apple Circus, I attended a matinee performance of Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter.” The day indeed was a study in contrasts. Now in its waning run at the Roundabout Theatre’s Studio 54 in New York, “Brief Encounter” will, alas, close on January 2. If you’re near New York, run, before it’s too late! It’s another import from the London stage, an exchange tradition for which we theatre buffs on this side of the pond should all be enormously grateful.
Some readers may remember the 1945 David Lean movie, with Trevor Howard, Celia Johnson and Stanley Holloway. I don’t, but then I was 6, and into pirates and Robin Hood. And in later years of treasuring classic films, I had just not come across it. In any case, initially, I was still not particularly taken with the idea of spending two hours with a hackneyed 1935 love story. I had “better” things to do on this New York trip, I thought, like the Beckett Plays, or Ibsen, and a “daring” production about Andrew Jackson. I had already assembled an agenda of five plays, a Vienna Choir Boys concert, and the Big Apple Circus for this four-day binge. More on that in the next post. So this was a ticket I came to at the last minute. But when a good friend and favorite theatre guru suggested that “Brief Encounter” was one of his top five experiences of all time in a theatre audience, it was not a comment to be taken lightly.
That this would be something special was clear on arrival at the old Studio 54 theater. Ushers in period costume were unusually polite and attentive, and as the auditorium began to fill, some of them gathered in a corner in front of the stage and began to sing casually, quietly, seemingly just for fun, a low-key medley of tunes from the forties. I do remember when movie-goers were occasionally entertained by music as they took their seats. (And who could forget going to the movies at Radio City Music Hall, always preceded by a concert from the mighty Wurlitzer organ?) Then, someone produced a ukulele, a banjo, and then a trumpet, as the jazz tunes grew louder and more elaborate, setting the tone for the “movie” to come. The lights dimmed, the curtain opened, and yes, we are transported into a 40’s movie theater, and yes, the original titles on the fuzzy gray screen show we are here to see Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter” But wait, a couple in the front row are having an argument, somewhat disrupting. They’re in love. Is it over? She won’t stay with him. He begs her. Suddenly, the woman gets up and storms out, up onto the stage, and directly through the movie screen. And there she is, suddenly in the movie, transformed into Laura, in all her grainy black and white glory. What an opening!
This magical blending of what’s “real” and what’s a figment of light doesn’t stop there. This is not a production for old movie nostalgia fogies. It is a youthful, inspired treatment of a very simple love story. Coward originally wrote it as a one-act play, “Still Life”: Two people meet by happenstance; there is a spark; both are married, but not to each other; they experience the joy and helplessness of a potentially passionate love affair; but they can never quite bring it off. Not wanting to destroy their families, they separate. That’s it.
Those creative mavericks of the Kneehigh Theatre in Chiverton Cross, Cornwall, out in the wilds of Southwest England, have come up with a way to tell this universally painful tale in a way that is fundamentally joyful and fun to watch. There are great belly laughs, as well as real depth and poignant irony, reminding us of both the joy and pain of love, and the choices and sacrifices we all make in its name. It is a story told with a delightfully original theatricality, including dance, boisterous song, and chandelier-swinging acrobatics. Although it’s not a musical, the musicians continue to find ways to add tunes, many of them Coward’s own lyrics. They play many roles, and serve as a kind of Greek chorus. Finally, the original film soundtrack begins to overwhelm them with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s emotionally climactic Piano Concerto No. 2 (long a personal favorite) as Alec leaves for South Africa on a wonderfully inventive train speeding away from the station. Finally, a resigned Laura, without even the luxury of a decent farewell to her could-have-been lover, returns to her patient and understanding husband, on screen. I can be pretty hard-nosed and cynical, but tears flowed. This was the stuff of superb theatre.