Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter returns to Birmingham Rep – the very venue where the production made its debut in 2007 – to celebrate its ten-year anniversary. Noel Coward’s iconic play (and arguably even more famous film), with its subtle sub-texts and gentle story of a hidden love affair, may not seem like the most obvious match for director Emma Rice’s signature boisterous, musical style but, as ever, Kneehigh finds true magic in the most unlikely places.
Neil Murray’s designs are simple and incredibly effective. Framed by two scaffolding towers, the stage becomes a playground for charming theatrical effects. Brief Encounter’s ubiquitous trains are brought to life by puff of smoke emitting from a hand-held box, by the slow, mesmerising circuit of a toy train and by exemplary use of projections. Split-second timing, clever design and deft movements combine, so that Alec disappears from stage to instantaneously reappear in the projected video of a train carriage, waving farewell to Laura. An effect well worthy of the spontaneous applause it receives.
We experience love of all kinds, from Alec and Laura’s forbidden romance, to Beryl and Stanley’s giddy young love and Myrtle and Albert’s last chance romance. Stu Barker’s music creates a rich, atmospheric tapestry, becoming the soundtrack for three very different love stories. Often performed cabaret style, in front of shimmering velvet drapes, the quirky (often hilarious and dirty) lyrics providing endearing insights into each character.
Rather than emphasising the tragedy of Laura and Alec’s hidden relationship, or explore Alex’s potential predatory behaviour, Rice spins Noel Coward’s landmark romance into a fairytale. Inspired by Laura’s recollection of swimming in the sea as child, magnificent projections and rumbling sound effects of a powerful sea reflect the passionate, untameable side of Laura’s character. In between each scene, there’s a gust of wind and the cast are briefly blown to one side, carried by forces of nature. Beyond her staid marital home, Laura lives in a fairytale world where she swings wild and free from a chandelier or dances to jazz music with a strange man. We see the two sides of her human nature and agonise over her decision whether to escape to a fantasy world or return to her real world, and her husband.
The fantasy spills into the audience. The hugely talented cast are at work before the production has officially began, entertaining in the foyer and auditorium with live music and showing people to their seats. Actors watch the action from the auditorium, and one lucky audience member is given one of Myrtle’s fresh Bath Buns. We’re irresistibly drawn into Kneehigh’s charming, nostalgic world.
The hard-working cast all give excellent performances, switching characters, singing, dancing, playing instruments and creating special effects without tiring. Isabel Pollen, as Laura, and Jim Sturgeon, as Alec, subtly develop their relationship throughout so that we sympathise with their agonising goodbye. Beverly Rudd is outstanding as Beryl, and a whole host of comedic characters, with a wicked sense of fun and clumsy physical humour.
Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter is an endlessly inventive theatrical experience which surprises and delights with a playful, magical twist on this classic romance. Truly unmissable.
Brief Encounter is on at Birmingham Rep until Saturday 17 February, and tickets can be found here.