The Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 5th December, 2015
Emma Rice’s glorious adaptation of the Noel Coward classic is brought to life by a small but versatile company of actors, directed with sophistication and style by Nicky Cox. In a railway café, a woman has something in her eye. A tall, handsome stranger, who happens to be a doctor, comes to her aid – and so begins a romance, an affair – scandalous, when Coward first wrote it, but he makes us egg them on. We want to see them together. Meanwhile, around them, minor characters of lower social standing are having flings of their own. Not for them the soul-searching and the agonising; they just get on with it and, consequently, have a lot more fun!
Juliet Grundy is a treat as Mrs Bagot, running the café and trying to chivvy her skivvy, Beryl (Charlotte Froud), putting on airs and graces one minute, and enjoying a bit of slap and tickle behind the counter the next. Steve Farr is her paramour, railway worker Albert, complete with Carry-On film chuckle. Farr is in especially fine singing voice and his comic timing is spot on. Also, Matthew Collins, as Albert’s younger colleague Stanley, impresses vocally and at the piano. Richard Ball makes more of an impact as a trouble-making squaddie than as cuckolded husband Fred – but I suppose that’s the point: Fred is so boring, it’s no wonder that his Mrs finds solace elsewhere.
The other man, Alec, is someone who declares his feelings rather than expressing them – perhaps he is the most dated character of the piece in this respect – but Tony Homer cuts through the British reserve and stiff upper lip and plays Alec with a good deal of truth. We see it in his eyes rather than feel it through his words.
As Laura, the wife, Natalie Danks-Smith is magnificent. You can see her heart breaking while she listens to a train taking away the man she loves, as annoying friend Dolly (Lindsey Allwork in a striking cameo) prattles on. It’s the emotional climax of the piece.
The show is a lot of fun, peppered with period songs and also original compositions from the Kneehigh production. The ensemble singing is lovely. The coarse humour of the working-class characters is sharply contrasted with the more tentative, well-mannered courtship of the protagonists. Nicky Cox marries naturalism with more stylised staging for humorous and romantic effect – an impressive feat in this intimate space. Bel Derrington’s set gives us the café, a railway bridge, and the Jessons’ home in one economic design – the piece keeps its theatricality to the fore and is all the more effective because of it.
The cast seemed to warm up as the play went on; like the trains, they pick up steam – the opening scenes could do with more ‘attack’ to match the energy of what follows, but on the whole, they create atmosphere without resorting to the exaggerated or clipped accents of that bygone age, and scenes in which eating takes place have to be choreographed as thoroughly as a dance.
Technically sophisticated, euphonious and hilarious, this is a Brief Encounter that tickles the funny bone as much as it touches the heart.